18th century

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)


Ritson’s introduction to A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode.

One of the more interesting characters that I have come across in the course of my research is the antiquarian, Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees northern England. Not a lot is known of his early life. His tutor, Rev. John Thompson, however, spoke of him as one of his best pupils. [1] He never went to university but was instead apprenticed to a solicitor. Ritson is remembered, however, for his antiquarian pursuits; an interest he maintained throughout his life.

Before going into detail about his antiquarian research, however, I would like to dwell upon some of his eccentricities. Unusually for people in the eighteenth century, Ritson was a vegetarian. Nicholas Harris explained in his biography that:

A perusal of Maudeville’s Fable of the Bees, induced […] serious reflection and caused him firmly to adhere to a milk and vegetable diet, having at least never tasted, during the whole course of those thirty years, a morsel of flesh, fish, or fowl. [2]

At a time when eating beef was seen as patriotic (it was the era of ‘the roast beef of old England), Ritson’s diet must have raised a few eyebrows. He published the reasons for his vegetarianism in An Essay on Abstinence from Animal Food, as a Moral Duty (1802).

He was also an atheist. When he died, for instance, he was in the middle of completing a tract that attempted to prove that Jesus Christ was an imposter. Indeed, throughout his life he was known to have told his associates that:

He did not believe that there was any such being as Almighty God, or that there was any future state of rewards or punishment, and the greatest devil he knew was a nasty, crabbed, ill-natured old woman. [3]

But he was always a kind man, and would do anything to help his friends. His kindliness manifested itself in various ways. He was known to be very charitable towards the poor. Not out of the hope of ‘storing up treasures in heaven’ but simply out of fellow human goodness. [4] He did not need a God to tell him to do good works.


Ritson’s Select Collection of English Songs.

Ritson could also be cantankerous, although this was probably a result of the mental health issues he suffered from throughout his life. He was one of a group of antiquarian scholars who came to prominence during the eighteenth century, but he constantly criticised other scholars’ methodologies in the press. Thomas Percy, who took it upon himself to ‘edit’ old English ballads, came in for a lot of criticism by Ritson. The criticism was often justified; Percy, for instance, ‘edited’ the medieval ballad of Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne so as not to offend the polite sensibilities of his eighteenth-century readers. Consequently, Robert Southey would later remark of Ritson that:

Ritson is the oddest, but most honest of all our antiquarians, and he abuses Percy and Pinkerton with less mercy than justice’.[5]

Luckily, despite his severe criticism of other scholars, people such as Sir Walter Scott appeared to know how to handle him and his eccentric ways.

He published many collections of ‘ancient’ (I will discuss the implications of this below) poetry, such as The Northumberland Garland (1793) and Ancient English Metrical Romances (1802). Ritson is chiefly remembered nowadays, however, for the work that he did on the Robin Hood legend. In 1795 he 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 (1795). In this publication Ritson gathered together every known Robin Hood text then known, and made available for the first time in an accessible printed form the ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450). As well as Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, both of which date from the fifteenth century, he included many of the later seventeenth-century broadside ballads such as Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1631), and Robin Hood and the Tanner (late 17th century). Ritson, however, was quite cunning in including these later ballads in a collection of ‘all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads’. Except for the Geste, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter, most of the later ballads in his collection were not ‘reliques’ of an ancient English past; they were still being sold as broadsides for a penny during the eighteenth century.

Title Page to the 1823 Edition of Ritson's Anthology

Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood (1795).

Ritson also offered readers ‘historical anecdotes’ of Robin Hood’s life which he prefaced to the beginning of the collection of ballads. But before we discuss the biography of Robin Hood that he had written, let me give you some background in regards to Ritson’s political beliefs. Ritson was an outspoken republican who wished to see an end to the monarchy. But these beliefs, with the commencement of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), and the repressive legislation on political freedom of thought brought in by the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, meant that it was quite dangerous to express republican sympathies in public. Ritson himself was conscious that he was being watched by the authorities. While in the early years of the Revolution he referred to his friends by such names as ‘Citizen Equality’, by 1793 he decided to stay silent in all political matters:

I find it prudent to say as little as possible on political subjects, in order to keep myself out of Newgate. [6]

Consequently, he needed an outlet for his republican sympathies. So when he was writing his biography of Robin Hood, he transformed Robin Hood from being a small-time medieval outlaw who lived in the woods to a radical, almost 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. [7]

Ritson states, furthermore, that Robin’s acts of defiance against the King should be viewed as the highest form of patriotism:

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. [8]

In short, Robin was a man whom:

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 virtuous acts, will render his name immortal. [9]

In Ritson’s view Robin was a true patriot, the epitome of the eighteenth-century ‘independent man’ who would brook no interference from those in authority. [10]

Ritson’s Robin Hood was published at a time when other radical authors were appropriating figures from England’s medieval past. Ritson strains the figure of Robin Hood somewhat in order to make him fit his vision of a medieval Thomas Paine. But Robert Southey had the year previously also wrote Wat Tyler, A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (1794), a highly anachronistic view of the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, in which Tyler fights for ‘liberty’ and ‘rights’. Despite Ritson’s best efforts, however, reviewers of his work in literary magazines raised an eyebrow at his interpretation of Robin Hood’s life. One reviewer in The Critical Review, for example, said that:

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. [11]

Most likely the anonymous reviewer was aware of Ritson’s radical sympathies. Indeed, before William Pitt’s repressive legislation, Ritson had hardly been secretive about his republican sympathies.

History is silent about the particulars of Ritson’s later life. It is known that his mental health deteriorated rapidly in the late 1790s. In September 1803 he barricaded himself in his room and violently tried to attack all who approached him. He was thereby forcibly removed to the country house of Sir Jonathan Miles and attended to by doctors. Four days later, however, he sadly died. [12]

He certainly made his mark upon the world, however. He was viewed as an authority on all things antiquarian. Although their politics were different, furthermore, he appears to have maintained a friendship with Walter Scott, to whom he gave advice while he was composing his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). In Scott’s novel The Antiquary (1816) we meet a cantankerous old lawyer-cum-antiquary named Jonathan Oldbuck (perhaps inspired by Ritson himself). Oldbuck regularly engages in debates with his fellow antiquaries, and Ritson is referenced in a very humorous exchange between Oldbuck and Sir Arthur Wardour (the fictional character whose name would be given to the ‘Wardour MS.’ – a medieval document which is supposedly where Scott found the tale of Ivanhoe recorded). [13]

Although Francis James Child’s collection of ballads in the late 1800s is usually given more authority than Ritson’s work, were it not for his tireless endeavours in researching Robin Hood some of the materials relating to the outlaw legend may have been lost.


[1]Nicholas Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), p.ii.
[2]Harris, ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’, pp.iii-iv.
[3]Alfred Henry Burd, Joseph Ritson: A Critical Biography (Illinois, 1916), p.102.
[5]Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855), p. 159.
[6]Joseph Ritson, ‘CVI: To Mr. Wadeson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), pp.5-7 (p.7).
[7]Joseph Ritson (ed.) Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1, p.v.
[8]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, p.vi.
[9]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, pp.xi-xii.
[10]See Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester: MUP, 2005).
[11]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.
[12]Burd, Joseph Ritson, 193.
[13]Walter Scott, The Antiquary [1816] Ed. N. J. Watson (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2002), p.64.


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