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