18th century

Robin Hood: Illustrating an Outlaw

Thomas Bewick's Illustrations to A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode.

Thomas Bewick’s Illustrations to A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode.

This is a copy of the paper I gave at the British Association for Romantic Studies International Conference, 19 – 19 July 2015 at Cardiff University.

Abstract. Robin Hood is the archetypal noble robber who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Yet when Joseph Ritson published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), Robin Hood was more than this: he was a patriotic semi-revolutionary guerrilla fighter, a man who opposed the ‘titled ruffians and sainted idiots’ of medieval history, and set kings at defiance. And it is to Ritson that most of the credit is given for constructing an active yet seemingly non-violent outlaw that modern audiences are familiar with today. One aspect of Ritson’s work which has not yet been focused upon in great detail is the images which adorned Ritson’s anthology. The images were produced by Thomas Bewick and, in contrast to the ‘radical’ Robin Hood of Ritson’s biography, and the violent Robin Hood of the ballads, present a rustic and gentrified portrayal of Robin Hood’s life in the medieval greenwood. The argument of this paper is that these images framed readers’ interpretations of Ritson’s work as a whole, downplaying the revolutionary nature of ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ and sanitising the violence of the early ballads.

Robin Hood is a figure that has been continually adapted and readapted throughout history to suit various audiences’ tastes. In some of the earliest medieval texts such as Robin Hood and the Monk, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, he is ‘Bold Robin Hood,’ a violent outlawed yeoman who lives in the forest. In later broadside ballads, the popular outlaw hero comes across as something of a buffoon, or a trickster. Many of them depict Robin as receiving a sound beating from strangers in the forest, known typically as the “Robin Hood meets his match” type of scenario.[1] Robin Hood had also been cast as a dispossessed nobleman in Anthony Munday and Henry Chettle’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1599), and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601). In some eighteenth-century plays such as Francis Waldron’s pastoral The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1783), Robin is a passive and inactive hero, referred to as ‘gentle master’ by his men. [2]

This situation changed in the late eighteenth century when the antiquary, Joseph Ritson, published his two-volume work Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life in 1795. Ritson made some of the earliest (and quite violent) medieval ballads of Robin Hood accessible to a large reading public, as well as including in his anthology the later broadside ballads which I’ve just mentioned. I’ve quoted the title of his work in full, however, because the most important part of his work was the ‘Life of Robin Hood’ which he included in his work, and in which he laid down the “facts” of the legend. He says:

Robin Hood was born at Locksley, in the county of Nottingham, in the reign of king Henry the second, and about the year of Christ 1160. His extraction was noble…he is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon.[3]

Ritson also tells us about Robin Hood’s personal character; Robin is ‘active, brave, prudent, patient: possessed of uncommon bodyly [sic] strength, and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers or adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.’[4] Robin stole from the rich to give to the poor. [5] Yet Ritson was also a man who had revolutionary sympathies, and it is evident from his letters how much he admires the French, saying:

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.[6]

So Ritson refashions Robin into a semi-revolutionary bandit:

In these forests, and with this company, he 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.[7]

So Robin Hood is now, in effect, an action hero, and stands in stark contrast to the ‘gentle’ outlaw leader of earlier plays, and the violent yeoman of the early medieval ballads which were included in Ritson’s anthology. And Ritson’s work is the most important work, perhaps, in the history of the Robin Hood legend, and Stephen Knight says that his interpretation of the Robin Hood’s life ‘underlies most of the versions that appeared after [him] and right up to the present day.’ [8] But do we give Joseph Ritson too much credit for reconfiguring Robin Hood as an active, noble freedom fighter? I think we do, and I would like to explain why in this paper, for Ritson’s book was accompanied with illustrations by Thomas Bewick (1752-1828), a famous engraver from Newcastle. Having perused the bibliographies of the works of most of the major Robin Hood Studies researchers, it became apparent that most of them did not consult the original 1795 edition but later editions which, whilst they retained the text of Ritson’s original edition, either did not retain Bewick’s images or only included a few of them. As I will argue in this talk, these rustic images served to gentrify Robin Hood, and mediate between the various images of Robin Hood contained in the text of Ritson’s work (the semi-revolutionary of the ‘Life of Robin Hood’ and the violent outlaw of the early ballads). In effect, through Bewick’s images Robin Hood was made respectable.

You may have heard of Thomas Bewick, but for those who have not I will just say a few words about his life. Bewick was born in Newcastle, and after proving his skill as an apprentice to the Newcastle-based engraver Ralph Beilby, commenced a business partnership with him when he came of age. Bewick became famous with the publication of two books entitled A General History of British Quadrupeds (1790), and The History of British Birds (1797). [9] His images are pastoral in tone and he depicted various aspects of rural life such as rustic pranks, village funerals, and farm animals. Contemporary critics praised him for being able to ‘take the jaded city dweller out of himself and into a nostalgically aestheticized rural idyll.’[10] He was more than a simple engraver, however, for his images were finely detailed due to an innovative technique he developed of working against the grain on hard boxwood, using tools usually employed in copperplate engraving on this very hard wooden surface.’[11] And Bewick’s work was admired all round. his skills as an engraver and illustrator praised in the first stanza of William Wordsworth’s poem, The Two Thieves (1805):

O now that the genius of Bewick were mine,
And the skill which he learned on the banks of the Tyne.
Then the Muses might deal with me just as they chose,
For I’d take my last leave both of verse and of prose. [12]

It is not known how much collaboration there was between Bewick and Ritson. It may have been the case that they actively collaborated on Robin Hood, for Bewick had provided the illustrations for Ritson’s earlier works such as Pieces of Ancient Popular Poetry from Authentic Manuscripts and Old Printed Copies (1791), Bishopric Garland, or Durham Minstrel (1792), and the Northumbrian Garland, or Newcastle Nightingale (1793). [13] Both Bewick and Ritson also apparently shared the ‘radical faith,’ and like Ritson, Bewick was an admirer of the French Revolution,[14] although his attitude towards it cooled somewhat in the wake of the Reign of Terror. [15] Frustratingly for the researcher, however, neither Bewick nor Ritson mention the other in their letters, and it may have been the case that the publisher of Ritson’s works ordered the engravings from Bewick. It is likely that the two men collaborated actively, but it cannot be stated with certainty.

There are over 60 images in the 1795 edition of Robin Hood, but for the sake of clarity I shall focus mainly upon three of them; the ones which accompany the ballads A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and A True Tale of Robin Hood. As I mentioned earlier, the early Robin Hood ballads are often violent. The ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode was originally composed around the year 1450.[16] It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes’ and recounts some of the various deeds and exploits in which Robin gets embroiled in during the time an un-numbered King Edward, or ‘Edwarde oure kynge.’[17] The Sheriff of Nottingham makes an appearance – he is, after all, Robin’s arch enemy – and Robin kills him. This is how the Sheriff’s death is described in the ballad:

Robyn bent a good bowe,
An arrowe he drewe at his wyll,
He hyt so the proud sheryf,
Upon the grounde he lay full styll;
And or he myght up aryse,
On his fete to stonde,
He smote of the sheryves hede,
With his bryght bronde [sword].[18]

We today are used to seeing Robin Hood in a state of perpetual opposition to the Sheriff of Nottingham, but rarely do we ever see Robin actually kill anyone. Indeed, the continuing vitality of any Robin Hood TV show depends upon the Sheriff being kept alive. Usually Robin Hood temporarily incapacitates his enemies and that is all. But as you can see, it’s not enough here that Robin Hood simply kills the Sheriff with an arrow, for he also beheads him with his sword.

Thomas Bewick's Illustration to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne

Thomas Bewick’s Illustration to Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne

Yet the image of life in the medieval greenwood presented in the text of the Geste is different to that portrayed by Thomas Bewick. The image which accompanies A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode is peaceful, calm, and one might say, serene. There is no hint of violence or menace in this illustration; it is a rustic scene; Robin Hood and another man, whom I assume is Little John, sit pensively under a tree. To Bewick, the natural world represents true freedom, and this is a theme which runs throughout his works. [19] And this is in keeping with the contemporary political thought between the ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ political theorists. For the ‘Country’ theorists – and Bewick was proudly provincial – the city represented vice, corruption, luxury, and death, while the country represented the Old English values of purity, benevolence, and healthy vigour. [20] Robin Hood and Little John here possess true freedom and independence.

Violence is similarly sanitised in the image which accompanies the ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. The ballad dates from the fifteenth century and ‘may well be one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads.’ [21] It was originally included in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), though Percy too had edited the text of the ballad to make it more acceptable to polite readers, something for which he was severely criticised by Ritson. The ballad is even more bloodthirsty than the Geste; Robin meets a stranger in the forest, Sir Guy of Gisborne, and realises that he is a bounty hunter who has been hired by the Sheriff to kill him. Robin and Guy have a sword fight. Guy almost overpowers Robin until:

Robin thought of our ladye deere,
And soone leapt up againe,
And strait he came with a awkwarde stroke,
And he sir Guy hath slayne.
He took sir Guys head by the hayre,
And stuck it upon his bowes end:
Thou hast beene a traitor all thy life,
Which thing must have an end.
Robin pulled forth an Irish knife,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That he was never on woman born,
Cold know whose head it was.[22]

So, here we have Robin killing a man who, granted, would have killed him. But the violence in the text makes Robin appear rather unsporting. He cuts off Guy’s head and then marks his face with a knife; post mortem mutilation and decapitation of an enemy is not something we would expect of Robin in this day and age. Yet Bewick chooses not to represent this moment of murderous carnage. Instead, the moment he chooses to depict is the instant that Robin is almost overwhelmed by Sir Guy. In my opinion, this pictorial representation of Robin in a moment of danger would have justified the violence evident in the accompanying text. Again, however, the violence is sanitised by Bewick’s reconfiguration of the violent world of the medieval greenwood into an ‘eighteenth-century-ish’ rural setting.

Thomas Bewick's Illustration to A True Tale of Robin Hood

Thomas Bewick’s Illustration to A True Tale of Robin Hood

Ritson included in his collection, not only medieval ballads, but ballads which dated from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These later ballads such as A True Tale of Robin Hood (1631) present a more gentrified image of the popular outlaw hero, and this ballad marks the first time that Robin is called ‘Earl of Huntingdon’ in popular culture. [23] Bewick’s image here is anachronistic, for the clothes which the outlaws are wearing are in both images are hardly representative of the medieval period. Robin and his men are all dressed in top hats, waistcoats, and breeches. Yes there is a monk present in the illustration for A True Tale of Robin Hood, and the men are carrying long bows. But it is still a scene you might expect to see in a rural town in the eighteenth century, rather than the 13th century. This fusion of the medieval period with the eighteenth century in Bewick’s images, however, may be more to do with the fact that there was continuity in everyday life with the medieval period. In the mid-twentieth century Alice Chandler discussed the Medieval Revival of the nineteenth century in relation to the works of Sir Walter Scott. She argued for a more nuanced understanding of the term ‘revival,’ noting that:

In a sense the Middle Ages had never died, even in Scott’s time…Chaucer’s plowman would have found England’s rural life very familiar. The tools and produce of agriculture had scarcely changed for centuries; the old country customs and festivals were only slowly dying out; and the whir of the spinning-wheel had just begun to grow silent. [24]

Chandler’s argument is deserving of being revived itself in relation to Bewick’s images for Robin Hood. She made further strong arguments for the persistence of medieval customs in the daily life of the eighteenth century:

Medieval art forms had remained alive, too, except in the city, where popular tradition had become rootless and denatured. In the country and at such places as Oxford, the Gothic tradition of building survived right through the neoclassical period. The old tales of Bevis of Hampton and Guy of Warwick, long condemned as “barbaric,” kept their place at the rural fireside until their “simple grandeur” was rediscovered, and the same pattern held true for folk songs and ballads. [25]

In essence, while Bewick’s images seem, to the modern reader at least, very anachronistic, to Bewick this was not the case. To Bewick, his anachronistic images were representative of the medieval period, a period which was still, in the customs and art of daily life, still ongoing.

Ritson’s anthology received mixed reviews. In 1797 a review of Ritson’s work in The British Critick and Quarterly Review was on the whole favourable in its assessment, and gave qualified praise of the work saying that he has ‘spared no diligence in the enquiry; and appears to have collected every passage from every book he could find, whether manuscript or printed, in which his hero is mentioned’ but criticised him for not adding anything particularly new in terms of new material. [26] Another reviewer in The Critical Review simply found it amusing that Ritson cast Robin Hood as a quasi-revolutionary leader, saying that:

His [Robin Hood’s] character is here estimated too highly. He certainly possessed a spirit of freedom and independence; but, however we may be inclined to excuse the manner in which that spirit was displayed, it was not without a smile that we saw it denominated patriotism.’ [27]

Criticisms of Ritson’s text aside, Bewick’s images cannot help but gentrify the outlaw hero, and it is likely that readers took more notice of the images than they did of the text. In fact, it might be said that Bewick’s images were the main draw of Ritson’s Robin Hood. An advertisement of Ritson’s work in The Morning Chronicle makes no mention of Ritson but emphasises Bewick’s illustrations by listing his name before the title of the book being advertised:

This day is published, price 12s…elegantly printed on fine wove paper with vignettes, by the Bewicks, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, to which are prefixed historical anecdotes of his life (emphasis added).[28]

For one late eighteenth-century reader, Bewick’s images were the main draw of the work he was reading. He commented of Bewick’s Fables that ‘it is not, indeed, exactly as a book that I love it, but rather a series of delightful pictures…the language was little or nothing – the pictures everything.’ [29] A later admirer of Bewick’s works, Charlotte Bronte, would write in Jane Eyre (1847) about Bewick’s British Birds, telling how ‘the words in these introductory pages connected themselves with the succeeding vignettes’ (emphasis added). [30] If this account is anything to go by, readers allowed Bewick’s images to frame their interpretation of the text; the text does not frame their interpretation of the images. And this may have been the case in Robin Hood; readers saw the images first before going on to read the actual ballads in the book.

Perhaps Bewick’s influence upon Robin Hood as a whole can be viewed in subsequent editions of the book. Children loved Bewick’s works, and special editions of his British Birds and Quadrupeds were published specifically for a juvenile market. In the 1820s, after John Keats, Sir Walter Scott, and Thomas Love Peacock had popularised Robin Hood even further in their literary works, the publisher, C. Stocking, decided to release a new edition of Ritson’s Robin Hood. It was an edition ‘that could with propriety be put into the hands of young persons.’ [32] And the same words are written also in the 1823 edition of Robin Hood. In contrast to the publisher of the 1795 edition, Thomas Egerton, the publishers of the later editions made sure to include Bewick’s images on the title page. Unfortunately, the number of images in subsequent editions was considerably reduced. Only three of Bewick’s images appear in the single volume 1820 edition.

In conclusion, Bewick’s images to Robin Hood connect the various identities which Robin Hood holds in Ritson’s text through a series of gentrified images. Ritson’s work was indeed full of sometimes contradictory information concerning Robin Hood. On the one hand Ritson stated that Robin Hood was a nobleman. On the other hand there were ballads which presented him as a yeoman, or a nobleman, or with no origins at all. Sometimes he was playful and acted like a trickster, whilst sometimes he was murderous. In some ballads he stole from the rich and helped the poor, whilst in other ballads there was none of this. The violent and subversive potential of the outlaw in the text is downplayed in favour of a gentrified and polite pictorial representation of life in the medieval greenwood. In Ritson’s Robin Hood, therefore, a picture really was ‘worth a thousand words.’


[1] This is often a ruse to test a stranger’s mettle before convincing them to join his band.
[2] Francis Waldron, The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (London: J. Nicholls, 1783), p.12.
[3] Joseph Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.iv.
[4] Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood,’ p.xii.
[5] Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood,’ p.ix.
[6] Joseph Ritson, ‘Letter XCVII: To Mr. Harrison, Grays Inn, 26th November 1791,’ ed. by Nicholas Harris, The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in Possession of His Nephew. To Which is Prefixed a Memoir of the Author, Vol. 1 (London: William Pickering, 1833), p.202.
[7] Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood,’ p.v.
[8] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994), p.22.
[9] Ian Bain, ‘Bewick, Thomas (1753-1828)’ The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) [Internet <www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/2334> Accessed 21st November 2014].
[10] John Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 2013), p.415.
[11] Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p.411.
[12] William Wordsworth, ‘The Two Thieves; or, the Last Stage of Avarice’ [1805] ed. by John Morley William Wordsworth: The Complete Poetical Works (London: Macmillan and Co. 1888) [Internet << http://www.bartleby.com/145/ww179.html>&gt; Accessed 03/07/2015].
[13] Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (London: Faber, 2006), p.125.
[14] Uglow, Nature’s Engraver, p.228.
[15] Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p.419.
[16] There is debate about the dating of A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, but James C. Holt, who has written extensively upon the matter, has said that ‘the Gest was first composed, in something close to its present form, in the fifteenth century, perhaps even as early as 1400’ in Robin Hood [1982] (Thames and Hudson, 1989), p.11. He has subsequently revised this estimate, saying that c.1450 was a ‘safer date’ than c.1400. See James C. Holt, ‘Robin Hood: The Origins of the Legend’ ed. by Kevin Carpenter Robin Hood: The Many Faces of that Celebrated English Outlaw (Oldenburg: Bibliotteks- und Enformationssystem der Universität Oldenburg, 1995), pp.27-34.
[17] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.68.
[18] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.62.
[19] Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p.421.
[20] Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p.65.
[21] D. C. Fowler, ‘Ballads’ ed. by A. E. Hartung, The Manual of Writings in Middle English 1050-1550 (New Haven, Connecticut: Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1980), pp. 1753-1808 (p.1782).
[22] Anon. ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne,’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), pp.123-124.
[23] Martin Parker, ‘A True Tale of Robin Hood’ [1631] ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.128.
[24] Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), pp.315-332 (p.316).
[25] Ibid.
[26] Anon. ‘Art. III: Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. To Which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life. In Two Volumes. Cr. 8vo. 10s 6d. Egerton & Johnson, 1795’ The British Critick and Quarterly Review, Vol. IX (London: Printed for F. & C. Rivington, No. 62 St. Paul’s Churchyard, 1797), p.16.
[27] Anon. ‘Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw; to which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life. 2 vols. 8vo. 12s. Boards’ The Critical Review or Annals of Literature, No.23 (1798), p.229.
[28] Anon. ‘This day is published’ The Morning Chronicle, 14 December 1795, p. 2.
[29] Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, p.401.
[30] Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre [1847] cited in Antonia Losano, ‘Reading Women/Reading Pictures: Textual and Visual Reading in Charlotte Bronte’s Fiction and Nineteenth-Century Painting’ ed. by Janet Badia and Jennifer Phegley Reading Women: Literary Figures and Cultural Icons from the Victorian Age to the Present (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), pp.27-52 (p.27).
[31] Anon. ‘Preface’ [1820] ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life 1820 Edn. (London: Longman, 1795), p.iii.
[32] Anon. ‘Preface’ [1820] ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw to Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life 1823 Edn. (London: Longman, 1795), p.iii


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