Stephen Basdeo’s “Robin Hood” Radio Segment

As most people know, I’ve spent a significant amount of time researching and writing about the legend of Robin Hood.

Having written a Ph.D. thesis on the legend, it was a pleasure to be asked by Jonathan Wright at Pen and Sword books to write a popular history book on the subject, which gradually took shape as Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (2019).

Most authors promise themselves they’ll never look at reviews of their book, but we can never help maybe sneakily wondering if our ‘average star’ count on Amazon has gone up or whether a feature has been done on your book on the local radio (and let me tell you, Goodreads reviewers are the harshest taskmasters).

But I was lucky enough to have my Robin Hood book featured on an Australian radio station named Australia Out There, which appears to do special features on all things folklore. And I couldn’t be more happier with the review which appeared on this station.

If you have 5 minutes, then why not listen to the review?

 

A Never-Before-Seen Poem by Robert Southey, written in 1791

Edited by Stephen Basdeo and Mark Truesdale

The summer of 1791 was an unusually wet one. The young schoolboy, and future Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, therefore had a lot of time on his hands. It was probably the weather that induced him to stay inside longer than usual and write a romance entitled “Harold; or, The Castle of Morford” (Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e.21. Summary Catalogue 31777).

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Robert Southey

Mark Truesdale (the brilliant expert of medieval and early modern literature) and Stephen Basdeo (a lover of Romantic and eighteenth-century literary and book history) have recently transcribed Southey’s novel—the equivalent of the three volume novel—and it is due for publication with Routledge in early 2020. Southey had written a number of poems for his novel which never made it into subsequent collections of his works.

Curiously, although “Harold” is a Robin Hood novel, he never actually wrote a Robin Hood poem for this text but instead drew upon the Arthurian tradition. In the poem below, Southey adapts the Tristan and Isolde. All of his youthful, idiosyncratic spelling mistakes, grammatical peculiarities, and odd spelling mistakes have been retained.

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“Harold; or, The Castle of Morford.” Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e.21 (Summary Catalogue 31777)

“Harold; or The Castle of Morford.”

Bodleian MS Misc. Eng. e.21 (Summary Catalogue 31777) fols. 101–05:

The morn was fair & all around

No cloud obscurd the view

Soft oer the flowr enamelld plain

The gentle zephyr blew.

On every herb & every tree

Shot bright the sun his ray

All nature seemd to smile around

So cheering was the day.

Sir Tristram on his stately steed

Rode sad & slow along

Nor did he cast one look around

Nor heed the blackbirds song

For pensive was the warriors heart

And ever would he sigh

And ever would exclaim Would God

La Belle Isonde were by

(Who has not heard the minstrel song

Of bold Sir Tristram tell?

How journeying from Iernes[i] shore

He drank the fatal spell?)[ii]

Were my La Belle Isonde but here

How happy should I be

Then absent though all nature smile

She smiles in vain for me

But soon arose a different scene

Before the warriors eyes[iii]

No more in sweet progression now

Hills dales & woods arise

Around a vast & barren plain

He cast his searching eye

But all in vain – nor hill nor dale

Nor tree nor shrub were nigh

Save where aloft in sullen state

Appeard the baleful yew

And where the cypress mournful tree

In solemn verdure grew[iv]

At distance far a rock sublime

Upreard its stately head

So high it towred that lowring clouds

Upon its top were spread –

The Knight in silent wonder gazd

To view the wondrous height

The towring summit reachd beyond

Poor feeble mortals sight

I will ascend the warrior cried

Perchance it may afford

Some bright adventure unatchievd

And worthy Tristrams sword

Rough was the rock & steep the sides

And perilous the way

For oft across the path perplexed

Huge rocks unsettled lay

And ever & anon would fall

With [hideous?][v] clamour bound

And oft beneath the warriors feet

Deep groand the enchanted ground

Cautious before his steps he held

His iron pointed spear

For prudence was the warriors praise

& Tristram could not fear

And oft huge caverns would he find

Oppose his dangerous way

And many a tottring rock before

Terrifick dreadful lay

A furious lyon from the den

Rushd forth upon the knight

Sir Tristram forward held his lance

Confiding in his might

Against the tawny monsters skin

The spear in shivers broke

On rushd the beast the Knight steppd back

And seizd a loosend rock

Rough craggy pointed in his h&

He poised the pondrous stone

Not ten men now could lift the mass

He hurld with ease the stone

Harmless from him the pondrous stone

Rebounded back again

And rushing with a hideous crush

Swift rolling reacd[vi] the plain

The Knight advanced & seizd the brute

Than[vii] whirled him down a cave

The fall resounding from the vault

A dreary echoe gave

On he advanced beneath his feet

Gave way the faithless ground

Descending in some spirits arms

He heard a mingled sound

Up the tremendous steep ascent

The warriors[viii] cast his eyes

So deep the cave that seemd from thence

The stars illumd the skies

When lo a heavenly voice exclaimd

Exert your utmost might

Prove well your courage & your love

In every dangerous fight

Again the Lion rushing forth

Swift sprung upon the Knight

Sir Tristram caught him in his arms

And straind with all his might.

So long he held the beast at length

The vital spirit fled

Extended lay upon the earth

The enchanted monster dead

When lo a Knight in arms appeared

For in the cave profound

A carbuncle with brilliance sheen

Diffused a light around

Fell traitorous villain Traitor stay

Exclaimd the hostile Knight

Nor think nor touch La Belle Isond

Nor think to fly the fight

Sir Tristram saw the cruel Mark

La Belle Isonde be mine

He cried & all the meed[ix] deservd

Of villainy be thine

As when two bulls the fiercest two

Of all the herd wage war

They foam they roar they lash the air

The others stand afar

Sir Tristram & his daring foe

Together rushd with rage

Nor ever did two braver Knights

With direr force engage.

Hold Tristram thus the voice returned

The causeless battle end

Hold Launcelot du Lake thy hand

Nor harm thy dearest friend

Art thou Sir Tristram swift exclaimd

Amazed his valorous foe

If thou best thee excuse my rage

That sought to lay thee lay[x]

Methought that here the recriant Knight

Sir Breuse sans pittie[xi] stood

Preparing to imbue his hand

In beauteous Isonds blood

Forgive thou too my heedless rage

Sir Tristram made reply

For rather than have harmed my friend

How gladly would I die


NOTES

[i] Ireland.

[ii] In the medieval romance, Tristan is escorting Iseult across the sea to marry his uncle King Mark of Cornwall when the pair accidentally drink from a love potion and so begin their passionate and ultimately tragic affair.

[iii] Manuscript reads: “But soon arose a different scene / Before the warriors eyes / Arose a different scene.” Southey has written an additional squiggle (or possibly an “in”) over the first deleted line, seemingly indicating it should be restored. To maintain the flow of the poem the editors have chosen to retain the first deleted line.

[iv] Both yew and cypress trees are commonly associated with the dead, cemeteries, and rituals of mourning.

[v] The word “hideous” is struck through, but the replacement word or words above it are illegible.

[vi] For “reached”.

[vii] For “then”.

[viii] For “warrior”.

[ix] A person’s deserved share of praise or blame.

[x] For “low”.

[xi] Sir Brewnys Saunze Pité is a villainous knight in Thomas Malory’s tale of “Syr Tristrams de Lyones” in Le Morte Darthur.

Red Katy and her Customers

By Stephen Basdeo

Robert Fabian (1901–1978) began his career as a police constable in London. He rose through the ranks of the Metropolitan Police and was eventually appointed to the rank of detective superintendent.

The sights he saw could have filled volumes—and they did!

In his retirement, he wrote two books chronicling his adventures as a policeman: Fabian of the Yard (1950) and London After Dark (1954). The books are now quite hard to come across but I was lucky enough to see one quite cheap in a second-hand bookshop. Let’s retrace Fabian’s nightly wanderings in the 1950s London underworld by focusing on a chapter included in London After Dark entitled ‘The Problem of Perverts’.

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Cheap paperback edition of Fabian’s book

Remember as you read that the so-called Sixties Sexual Revolution had not yet happened, and Fabian, having grown up in the Edwardian period, retained even into his old age what we might say was a very “Victorian” attitude to sex—the many fetishes he encountered surprised him, to say the least!

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Images of 1950s London from Fabian’s book

Take, for example, a sex worker named “Red Katy”, a “very handsome woman, with hair that was once fiercely red and today is streaked with grey.”

She possesses in full measure that valuable attribute of the successful prostitute—an unloving coldness for all men. Katy hates men, despises them and treats them with unconcealed contempt. They pay her hundreds of pounds per week, to the accompaniment of a stream of vituperation and abuse from her—and they like it!

For context, £100 in the 1950s was worth approximately £3,000 in today’s money. The fetish which “Red Katy” catered to was obviously high in demand. Fabian made to sure to remark that she was once unmarried, yet he also noted, perhaps unusually for the time, that Katy was not doing her “job” because she was driven to it by poverty; instead, she actually enjoyed it! — She had been doing it for fifteen years, after all, and had a very comfortable apartment in a fashionable district of London. She had two sons; at the time Fabian was writing one of them was attending Oxford University and the other, under an assumed name, was attending a very prestigious public school in the south of England (possibly Eton or Harrow).

And why shouldn’t her sons go to the best schools and universities? Her most favoured clients were members of the aristocracy!

So, what went on when one had an appointment with Red Katy?

Fabian went on further to say that,

Her trade begins at her front door, which is shamelessly unusual … the impatient client never gets as far as pushing this bell until he has made an appointment—often days ahead—by telephone. He is treated with scorn over the phone … her clients are all masochists—men whose perverse, nightmare need is to be humiliated and physically hurt by the object of their lusts.

Now, Fabian was not a psychologist, but that did not stop him from attempting to explain these “perversions”:

So there he is, this misguided man, whose family and friends know nothing of his peculiarity thumping and pounding at Katy’s plush-curtained door, concealed less than two hundred yards from Piccadilly Circus. And the door itself is remarkable. Sharp nails have been hammered through it, points outward, and … her clients find their first pleasure in hurting themselves against its hideous surface. She opens the door to them, at last, in a storm of abuse for their impatience, of acid scorn for their weakness in coming to her at all, and reviles them for “polluting” her dwelling place with their presence. Most of this is quite genuine, for Katy really does despise her customers.

“See,” says she, “you filthy contemptible, ill-mannered pig—how dare you show impatience at my door!”

“Wipe your filthy feet!”

The client must pass through her bedroom—he is not permitted to linger in it—and goes to the room beyond, which she calls her “operation room” … it is harshly lit. It contains an assortment of devices for inflicting pain. All the time, the client is pleading with Katy for her forgiveness, promising “he will be good,” while she lays into him with the whiplash of her tongue, and afterwards with her collection of implements.

Fabian may have disapproved of the men and their fetishes, but he never passed judgment on Katy herself. He comes across as rather admiring of Katy for being able to make money out of men’s perversions, although he do wish she’d declare her earnings to the Inland Revenue. The real danger, according to Fabian, were the “perverts” themselves, for out of their “perversions,” “all the most savage, puzzling crimes emerge.”

Fabian concluded his account of Red Katy by saying: “I do not think the average person knows much about perverts at all. I am only too happy to leave him in that ignorance.”

Joseph Ritson the Radical

By Stephen Basdeo

Joseph Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees in 1752 to a poor yeoman family. As a child, he attended the local Unitarian Sunday School where his talents intellectual talents were noticed, which led him to being apprenticed to a conveyancer in Stockton, after which his employer convinced him to seek employment in London where he could find more lucrative employment.

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A barefooted man in a rural part of England. An illustration by John Bewick to one of Ritson’s publications. Being poor, Ritson had to walk all the way from Stockton-on-Tees to London, often barefooted, to procure his first proper job.

While in London, he was kept busy trying to advance in his chosen career, which he did, eventually obtaining a salary of £300 per year. He spent his spare time conducting historical research into English history.  He was interested, not in the ‘high’ culture of people in times past, but in the culture of the common man, hence he published many collections of ancient songs such as A Select Collection of English Songs (1783), and Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry (1791). Ritson quickly established himself as an authority on many historical subjects owing to his willingness to seek out obscure primary sources from archives and libraries across the country. He was also cantankerous, and fiercely critical of his rivals such as Thomas Percy who took it upon himself to edit and ‘refine’ Old and Middle English texts.

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The man himself: Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Being from poor circumstances himself, he was ever-ready to help fellow man when needed. If something could help to improve their condition, he would offer his legal services gratis. One example of this is the fact that, in 1788, Jonas Hanway asked Ritson to draft a bill for ‘The Consideration of the Politic, Humane, and Merciful’ relief of ‘distressed boys’ living in the metropolis which would, among other things, have regulated the chimney sweep trade and made it safer for boys. Having written Hanway’s bill, Ritson refused to take any payment for it but instead gave his labour freely to the cause.

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Ritson offered his legal services free of charge to Jonas Hanway, who drew up a bill designed to give greater protections to chimney sweeps.

He also taught his nephew that

Charity and benevolence have a much stronger claim upon a person than the superfluous indulgence of his own appetite. Never hesitate between a beggar and a halfpenny worth of nuts … lay up treasure in heaven.

Underneath the gentlemanly and scholarly façade, however, lurked a budding revolutionary: Ritson visited Paris in the summer of 1791 and became captivated by the teachings of Thomas Paine and the ideals enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In a letter to a friend that summer, he wrote:

Well, and so I got to Paris at last; and was highly gratifyed with the whole of my excursion. I admire the French more than ever. They deserved to be free and they really are so. You have read their new constitution: can anything be more admirable? We, who pretend to be free, you know, have no constitution at all … The French read a great deal, and even the common people (such, I mean, as cannot be expected from their poverty to have had a favourable education, for there is now no other distinction of rank,) are better acquainted with their ancient history than the English nobility are with ours … Then, as to modern politics, and the principles of the constitution, one would think that half the people in Paris had no other employment than to study and talk about them. I have seen a fishwoman reading the journal of the National Assembly to her neighbours with all the avidity of Shakespeare’s blacksmith. You may now consider their government completely settled, and a counter-revolution as utterly impossible: they are more than a match for all the slaves in Europe.

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When he returned to England in November 1791, he made contact with several leading radical thinkers including William Godwin, John Thelwall, John Horne Tooke. Ritson was a big admirer of Godwin, less so of Godwin’s fiction:

You have read his novel [Caleb Williams], I presume; he has got it sufficiently puffed in the Critical Review, but, between ourselves, it is a very indifferent, or rather despicable performance, — at all events unworthy of the author of Political justice: I have no patience with it.

It was during the 1790s that in his letters he began to address all of his associates as ‘Citizen’ and adopted the French Revolutionary calendar as well.

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The Revolutionary Calendar

While he admired Paine and Godwin, he wrote little on politics at the time. Pitt’s Terror, which curbed press freedom and placed restrictions upon freedom of assembly, was in full swing by the mid-1790s. Ritson had himself seen many of his revolutionary-minded associates in the dock for sedition, and said that,

I find it prudent to say as little as possible on political subjects, in order to keep myself out of Newgate.

Yet one book which Ritson wrote has, in popular culture at least, outlasted the names of both Paine and Godwin: in 1795, Ritson published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads.

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Ritson’s Magnum Opus: Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795)

Ritson’s Robin Hood sounds like a dry historical work which gathered together primary sources relating to the life of the famous outlaw. It fulfilled this function but was it is anything but a boring tome: the most important part of the book was the ‘Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the work, in which he gave the biography of England’s most famous people’s hero.

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One of John Bewick’s Images of Robin Hood from Ritson’s Robin Hood: Resistance to corrupt authority was an heroic and patriotic act.

Ritson transformed the prevailing image of Robin Hood in popular culture from being a small-time medieval outlaw who lived in the woods to a radical, revolutionary bandit: this was the politics of the 1790s superimposed onto that of the 1190s, whose rulers were veritable tyrants who denied people even the most simple pleasures in life through harsh laws made by a narrow elite which served only their interests:

The deer with which the royal forests then abounded (every Norman tyrant being, like Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before the Lord”) would afford our hero and his companions an ample supply of food throughout the year; and of fuel, for dressing their vension, or for the other purposes of life, they could evidently be in no want. The rest of their necessaries would be easily procured, partly by taking what they had occasion for from the wealthy passenger who traversed or approached their territories, and partly by commerce with the neighbouring villages or great towns.

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From Ritson’s Robin Hood.

It was a medieval outlaw’s duty, and by extension it was the duty of a 1790s revolutionary, to make war upon the British establishment to protect the desolate and oppressed, but such a course of life would not be easy:

In those forests, and with this company, [Robin Hood] for many years reigned like an independent sovereign; at perpetual war, indeed, with the King of England, and all his subjects, with an exception, however, of the poor and needy, and such as were “desolate and oppressed,” or stood in need of his protection. When molested, by a superior force in one place, he retired to another, still defying the power of what was called law and government, and making his enemies pay dearly, as well for their open attacks, as for their clandestine treachery. It is not, at the same time, to be concluded that he must, in this opposition, have been guilty of manifest treason or rebellion; as he most certainly can be justly charged with neither. An outlaw, in those times, being deprived of protection, owed no allegiance: “his hand was against every man, and every man’s hand against him”. These forests, in short, were his territories; those who accompanied and adhered to him his subjects: “The world was not his friend, nor the world’s law:” and what better title King Richard could pretend to the territory and people of England than Robin Hood had to the dominion of Barnsdale or Sherwood is a question humbly submitted to the consideration of the political philosopher.

In other words: who says that any king has any right to lord his authority over any patch of land? Robin Hood’s ‘physical force’ resistance to a tyrannical king was simply the actions of a true patriot.

Ritson signs off his biography of Robin Hood by extolling the outlaw’s virtuous and heroic acts:

Such was the end of Robin Hood: a man who, in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained (for all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people), and, in spite of the malicious endeavours of pitiful monks, by whom history was consecrated to the crimes and follies of titled ruffians and sainted idiots, to suppress all record of his patriotic exertions and virtuous acts, will render his name immortal. With respect to his personal character: it is sufficiently evident that he was active, brave, prudent, patient; possessed of uncommon bodily strength and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers or adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.

Were movie and television producers honest, all modern Robin Hood productions would give due credit to this eccentric man for their works. Ritson’s work had a profound effect on successive portrayals of Robin Hood, who was, after Ritson’s 1795 book, envisioned less as an outlaw and more as a freedom fighter standing up for people’s rights against tyrannical elites.

Indeed, name of Robin Hood might have gone the way of other medieval outlaws such as Eustace the Monk, Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough, William of Cloudesley. These outlaws were likewise celebrated in medieval ‘popular’ culture but have disappeared from public notice except amongst academics.

What is even more admirable about Ritson is that, while other British ‘radicals’ slowly abandoned their support of revolutionary ideals after the Reign of Terror, Ritson remained steadfast and true to his beliefs till the end of his life in 1803, after suffering a debilitating stroke.

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From Ritson’s Robin Hood.

Further Reading:

Stephen Basdeo, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2019)

Rosie’s #Bookreview of #NonFiction ROBIN HOOD: The Life And Legend Of An Outlaw by @sbasdeo1 @penswordpub

Thanks for the Kind Review!

Rosie Amber

Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an OutlawRobin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw by Stephen Basdeo

4 stars

Robin Hood is a non-fiction study that attempts to discover just who the legendary Sherwood Forest outlaw really was.

Was he a common thief, a disgraced nobleman or man who truly did rob from the rich to give to the poor? Or was he nothing but a fictional character whose tale was acted out at village festivals?

This was an interesting insight into the mystery and myth which surrounds the man. The quantity of material that mentions Robin Hood was impressive. However, as the author goes on to make clear, it is hard to determine what is fact and what is fiction. It was interesting to see how the story around Robin Hood changed through different periods of history, as it reflected political and social fashions.

As with most non-fiction I found certain parts more interesting…

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