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)

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Robert Southey’s “Wedding of Robin Hood and Maid Marian”

By Stephen Basdeo

Dr Mark Truesdale and I are currently transcribing Robert Southey’s ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21), which was originally written in the summer of 1791.

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Robin Hood and Maid Marian, as printed in Life and Ballads of Robin Hood and Robin Hood’s Garland (Halifax: Milner and Sowerby, 1859)

Although in the marketing for our edition we have designated it as a novel, Southey’s text should be read more as a romance, a curious blend of the Gothic (which predominates whenever the outlaws leave the safety of Sherwood) and the pastoral, for in Sherwood an outlaw’s life is idyllic and divorced from the cares of the outside world.

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Depiction of Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Allen-a-Dale, as printed in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795). Towards the end of the eighteenth century, life in Sherwood was always pictured as a pastoral idyll. 

In Southey’s text, the usual stock characters from Robin Hood tales can be found: Little John, Will Scarlet, Maid Marian, the Bishop of Hereford; there are also several new characters, many of whom are taken from early modern plays such as Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641).

In keeping with previous portrayals of the outlaw legend, Robin Hood and Maid Marian are in love. Yet they are star-crossed lovers: Marian is the daughter of the wicked Baron Fitzosborne—the man who murdered the good Harold’s father—and the Baron, the main villain of the tale, naturally objects to his daughter’s marrying an outlaw.

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Another ‘romantic’ portrayal of Robin Hood from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

With such an impediment to their match, Robin kidnaps Marian when a jousting tournament is held at the Baron’s castle. The pair of them escape to Sherwood and immediately marry each other, presumably by Friar Tuck, although the marriage scene is not recorded in the novel and we jump to the post-nuptial feast scene.

After feasting on venison and ale—Southey has clearly done his Robin Hood homework—Robin asks for music to be played. What follows is the first of many instances throughout the novel where the young, barely 16-year-old Southey, exercises his budding poetical talents. In praise of the union between Robin and Marian, the Sherwood minstrel sings the following ballad:

Behold yon elm high towering lift his head

How brightly his foliage and how cool his shade

His branches wide and towering how they spread

And cast a grateful shadow o’er the glade.

Yet though he lift his head luxuriant high

And proudly seems to threat the neighbouring sky

Useless he flourishes there barren stands

Till doom’d to perish by the woodman’s hand.

Yet should some tender joy-inspiring wine

From some robuster tree that seeks support

Round his base trunk her circling arms entwine

The elm with pendant clusters black we see

The baron once now rich with choicest

Useless and barren were the elm alone

The vine unaided barren too had grown

Mutual assistance each to the other goes

And each by mutual kindness friended lives

Emblem expressive this of human life

The elm the husband and the vine the wife

How blest indeed the faces who truly know

The never ending bliss of wedded love.

Boudeville ended and received the applause of the whole company. Come Aeglamour, said Little John, try your skill and [illegible] happiness of the life we lead here. Were you once to experience the pleasures we enjoy, turning to Richard, you would love to die in the forest of merry Sherwood what are all the pleasures of a court to the pure entertainment of a country life! Richard was preparing to answer him when Aeglamour arose and began

Rises now with orient ray

Bright the gold on the orb of day

Aw’d by his effulgent light

Swiftly they the shades of night

On the leaves with silver hue

Glittering shines the pearly dew.

Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes

And swiftly scuds along through o’er bushes and o’er brakes.

What pleasures can the palace yield

Equal to these woodlands give

How blissfully the outlaws live.

Who roams at will [o’er] field and hill

How happily dwell we in the wood

And o’er the flowery field

How happy live we in the wood.

Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.

The deer with spreading antlers crowned

Stalks stately o’er the bower.

The bowman fits his dart

And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart

He falls upon the ground

We hail the prize with choral strain

Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale

List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale

What pleasures can the palace yield?

 

Now we with sober mien comes

And darkness hides the sky

The labour of the day is done

And home the outlaws hie.

 

The cheerful dance and minstrels sing

The pleasures of the time prolong

We beat the ground with skilful [illegible]

With skill we separate with skill we meet

The wholesome beverage goes around

At last by calm repose the happy day is crown’d

What pleasures can the palace yield?

Low shouts of applause proclaimed the universal approbation. This is the life, said Robin Hood turning to Marian, this is the life we lead. You have exchanged pomp and pageantry for the wild uncultivated pleasures of simple nature. But they are pleasures which art can never equal. I have exchanged a life of trouble and of care replied Marian sweetly smiling for one of happiness of liberty of love. She looked tenderly upon her husband and blush’d. Robin kiss’d her to hide it. In the meantime Richard enquired of Little John who sat next to him the manner in which Marian had been so successfully carried off.[i]

Mark and I are, to put it mildly, very excited at the prospect of seeing Southey’s unpublished novel finally in book form. For now, let’s hope that this ‘sneak preview’ of it has whetted your appetites.

In the meantime, see some of my work on other eighteenth century portrayals of Robin Hood:

“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”: Joseph Addison’s remarks on Robin Hood.

John Winstanley’s Robin Hood poems from 1742.

Portrayals of Robin Hood in eighteenth-century true crime literature.

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From Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

[i] Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791). Bodleian MS Eng. Misc. e. 21, ff. 11r–13r.

“If they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood”

By Stephen Basdeo

This post originally appeared on the IARHS website

Amongst the great writers of eighteenth-century literature, the names of two men stand out: Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) and Joseph Addison (1672-1719). These two quintessentially “Augustan” [1] writers dominated the literary marketplace between 1709 and 1715 through their essay periodicals The Tatler and The Spectator. Due to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which saw the end of government censorship, there was an explosion of printed material, [2] and Addison and Steele’s periodicals were part of this expansion in the availability of print culture.

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Addison and Steele’s periodicals

The public appetite for literature it seemed could not be sated. Although these periodicals had a seemingly modest circulation of just 3,000 copies, Addison claimed a readership for The Spectator that was somewhere approaching 60,000. [3] The fame of The Tatler and The Spectator also spread overseas: James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States, recalled having read these periodicals daily (which by his time had been bound into 8 volumes and gone through numerous editions). [4] Addison’s high estimate for the number of readers is not unreasonable, for periodicals such as The Tatler, like many of the other periodicals available in the early eighteenth century, were designed to be read and debated in public arenas such as the coffeehouse and the tavern, and periodicals, or “moral weeklies” as Jurgen Habermas calls them, contributed to the birth of the bourgeois public sphere, or as we might phrase it today, public opinion. [5] Through the essays in these periodicals these authors promoted a culture of aristocratic politeness among urban readers, in which learning and self-improvement were the order of the day. [6]

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Frontispiece of Joseph Addison, from Robert Cochrane, ed., The English Essayists: A Comprehensive Selection from the Works of the Great Essayists from Lord Bacon to John Ruskin (London: William P. Nimmo, 1876).

It is Addison’s reference to Robin Hood in the eighty-first issue of The Tatler which I would like to bring to your attention. He opens his essay with a quotation from Virgil’s Aeneid:

Hic Manus ob Patriam pugnando Vulnera passi,Quique pii Vates & Phaebo digna locuti, Inventas aut qui Vitam excoluere per Artes,Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo.

Here are the hands that suffered wounds by fighting for their country and those devoted poets, who spoke words worth of Phoebus or those who improved life through learned arts and those who by their merits caused others to remember them. [7]

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Credit: Phoebus, or Apollo, from the Victoria and Albert Museum

Addison tells his reader that he was musing upon the notion of immortality:

“There are two Kinds of Immortality; that which the Soul enjoys after this Life, and that imaginary Existence by which Men live in their Fame and Reputation.” [8]

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Marble bust of Alexander the Great

It is with the second type of immortality that Addison concerns himself with in his essay, and he says that he spent the whole afternoon mentally cataloguing the various heroes and “military Worthies” that have appeared throughout world history. [9] He was so preoccupied with this matter, he says, that after many hours awake thinking it over, he fell into a deep sleep and proceeded to have a dream in which he was invited into a great hall in which a number of prestigious persons entered:

The first who step’d forward, was a beautiful and blooming Hero, and as I heard by the Murmurs round me, Alexander the Great. He was conducted by a Crowd of Historians. [10]

Other ancient worthies enter: Xenophon, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Cicero, Hannibal, Cato, Pompey the Great, Augustus; it is all very classical, which of course ties into the neoclassical modes of the eighteenth century.

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Augustus of Prima Porta

All of these worthies sit at a table, but it is revealed that there is an empty seat at the table where these illustrious heroes are seated. They begin to whisper among themselves and discuss who, from British history, is worthy to join them at their table. Would they choose King Arthur? He had, after all, been called a “British Worthy” only a few years prior in John Dryden’s opera King Arthur; or, the British Worthy (1691). How about King Alfred, the only English King ever to have been given the epithet “the great”? No—neither of these men are good enough in the estimation of men such as Caesar and Augustus. They conclude by saying that,

“if they must have a British Worthy, they would have Robin Hood.” [11]

An outlaw who (supposedly) lived in the thirteenth century was greater than all of the other heroes of English history, and worthy enough to take his place amongst the likes of Alexander and Caesar.

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In Addison’s essay all of the ancient worthies are from the Classical period, with the exception of Robin Hood. Indeed, Addison’s placing of Robin Hood—a medieval figure—among all those classical heroes seems incongruent. In the early part of the eighteenth century, whilst it was recognised that the Middle Ages were integral to Europe’s past, the period was “not much liked” by scholars and thinkers.[12] And 1750 is the date that Peter Raedt cites as having been the year when eighteenth-century scholars stopped being dismissive of the Middle Ages as a barbaric interlude between antiquity and the “enlightened” eighteenth century and the period began to be appreciated in its own right.[13] Raedt concentrates his article on Germany, and while some of his points are applicable to England, at the same time England seems to have never truly “lost” an appreciation of its medieval past during the early part of the eighteenth century. Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur has already been cited, and Dryden also “translated” (into perfectly rhyming couplets) parts of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in his Fables: Ancient and Modern (1700). Handel also produced a medievalist opera Rinaldo (1711) set during the time of the First Crusade (1096-1099). Thomas Arne and James Thomson also authored the libretto for the opera Alfred (1740), known most famously today for its finale Rule Britannia! An appreciation for England’s medieval past also manifested itself in architecture, most famously in the Temple of British Worthies at Stowe, designed in 1734 by William Kent. Whilst the marble busts of most of the great men on display there are mostly from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there are two medieval figures present: King Alfred and Edward, the Black Prince.

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Temple of British Worthies at Stow Gardens

Yet Addison’s idealisation of Robin Hood as a British Worthy is an anomaly when compared to the works of Arne who venerated a King, Alfred, and the establishment figures that were sculpted in marble by William Kent. Robin is different to these other illustrious persons because he is an outlaw. And Addison’s reference to Robin Hood is certainly more positive than the one which would appear in Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719) only a few years after Addison was writing, where Robin is described as a “wicked, licentious” individual. [14] This makes it seem odd that Addison would choose Robin Hood to make a point in a “moral weekly.” I have two theories about this. Firstly, it would seem that Robin Hood was by the early eighteenth century gentrified enough in the public consciousness for him to be used in such a way. The gentrification process had begun with Anthony Munday’s two plays The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1597-98) where Robin is recast firmly as an establishment figure. [15] The second is that an idealisation of Robin Hood fits in with eighteenth-century contemporaries’ love of liberty. In a later issue of The Tatler, Addison wrote about another vision he had in which he witnessed the goddess of Liberty presiding over the prosperity of the nation. [16] Although crime was increasingly viewed as a problem during the eighteenth century, as indicated by Fielding’s lament that the streets of London would soon become impassable except “without the utmost hazard,” [17] liberty-loving men of Georgian England resisted any attempt by the government to form a professional police force. In a rather odd sort of way, highwaymen (and Robin is the original highwayman) were loved by the people because to many they were seen to embody liberty. [18] People of all ranks held a degree of admiration for highwaymen. At the trial of the “Gentleman Highwayman,” James Maclaine (1724-1750), for example, “many persons of rank of both sexes attended his examination, several of whom were so affected with his situation that they contributed liberally towards his support.” [19] This admiration of outlaws and highwaymen perhaps then explains why Smith, whose Highwaymen is a heavily moralist text, is so keen to recast Robin Hood in a negative light, for he evidently disagrees with the prevailing admiration for both Robin Hood and contemporary criminals.

Addison’s and others’ representations of Robin Hood raise questions as to whether the so-called ‘medieval revival’ of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century was actually much of a ‘revival’ at all. In the eighteenth century, however, the Robin Hood tradition has a neoclassical overlay, in a similar manner to Ben Jonson’s play The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1631), where the story of Robin Hood is portrayed as a classical and quasi-tragic story of lost pastoral love. [20] Drawing further connections with antiquity, in the play Maid Marian is equated with the goddess Diana. [21] After Addison was writing, Ely Hargroves, in Anecdotes of Archery (1792), catalogues all of the greatest archers in history, highlighting many of the illustrious archers of history such as Pandarus, Ulysees, Aeneas, and Robin Hood. [22] As Robin Hood scholars we are often told that the credit for popularising the medieval period rests largely with Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), a novel which, in the words of John Henry Newman (1801-1890),

‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages.’ [23]

Whilst Scott’s historicist vision of the Robin Hood tradition was different to the neoclassical eighteenth-century interpretations of it discussed above, a sustained interest, admiration even, for medieval figures can be traced throughout the eighteenth century, not just from the Gothic Revival of mid-to-late part of the century onwards.

In conclusion, whilst many early eighteenth-century appropriations of Robin Hood are negative, Addison’s elevation of Robin Hood into the status of a “worthy” in the face of negative interpretations is interesting for it confirms to us that the gentrification process was not a linear process but an uneven one. Addison’s essay is the only “gentrified” representation of Robin Hood (gentrified in the sense that he is elevated into someone equal to the heroes of antiquity) which I have managed to find between c.1700 and c.1730 and is certainly deserving of consideration. It is often fleeting comments about Robin Hood in later texts such as The Tatler which allow us to map and construct an idea of how people in past ages interpreted the legend at various points in its history. By 1709 it seems that Robin’s status was firmly gentrified in public consciousness for Joseph Addison to speak about him in a “moral weekly.”


Notes

[1] “Augustan,” named after the Roman Emperor, Augustus, is the term usually applied to “high” culture in England which flourished during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I. It is so called because artists and writers imitated Classical styles in their works, e.g. Alexander Pope’s Dunciad (in imitation of the Iliad), or his Imitations of Horace.

[2] Julian Hoppit, A Land of Liberty? England, 1689-1727, The New Oxford History of England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.

[3] Joseph Addison, “The Spectator, Number 10.” [1711] The Spectator: A New Edition, Reproducing the Original Text, Both as First Issued and as Corrected by its Authors. Ed. Henry Morley (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1880), 19.

[4] Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971), 39.

[5] See Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (London: Polity, 1989).

[6] James V. H. Melton, The Rise of the Public in Enlightenment Europe, New Approaches to European History 22 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 96.

[7] “No. 81,” in The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond. 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 2: 13-21. Bond notes that but “for the last two sentences, this number is by Addison,” 13. The Latin verse from Virgil included at the beginning of Addison’s article for my essay is translated by Richard Thomason (Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 2: 19.

[10] Ibid., 2: 17.

[11] Ibid., 2: 20.

[12] Peter Raedt, “Representations of the Middle Ages in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Medieval History 5, no. 1 (2002): 1-20 at 1.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Ed.  Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), 412.

[15] Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 44.

[16] “No. 161,” in Bond, The Tatler, 2: 397-401. This issue is also authored by Addison.

[17] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), 1.

[18] Lucy Moore, Conmen & Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001), xiii.

[19] Andrew Knapp & William Baldwin ed. “JAMES MACLANE Called ‘The Gentleman Highwayman.’ Executed at Tyburn, 3rd of October, 1750, for Highway Robbery.” The Newgate Calendar. http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng234.htm (accessed 26 August 2015).

[20] Stephen Knight, “‘Meere English Flocks’: Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd and the Robin Hood Tradition,” in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval, ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 129-44 at 131.

[21] Ibid., 134.

[22] Ely Hargroves, Anecdotes of Archery from the Earliest Ages to the Year 1791 (York: Printed for E. Hargroves, 1792), 1-17.

[23] Alice Chandler, “Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19, no. 4 (1965): 315-32 at 315. 

John Winstanley’s Robin Hood Poems

By Stephen Basdeo

This article originally appeared on the IARHS Website)

Rosemary Mitchell argues that during the eighteenth century, artists and writers when representing the medieval period did not strive for historical authenticity but instead sought to present a neoclassical or Shakespearean view of the past.[1] Classical imagery is present in some literary representations of Robin Hood from the eighteenth century. In a previous post for this website, it was pointed out that Joseph Addison (1672-1719) thought that Robin Hood was equal to classical heroes such as Achilles and Caesar.[2] The “classicisation” of Robin Hood is even stronger in two mid-eighteenth-century poems entitled “An Invitation to Robin Hood” and “Robin Hood’s Answer” (1742).

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John Winstanley

These two Robin Hood poems appeared in John Winstanley’s Poems Written Occasionally, Interspersed with Many Others by Several Ingenious Hands(1742). Winstanley (c.1677-1750) was born in Ireland, but he is a minor figure in the eighteenth-century literary world, and virtually nothing is known of his life.[3] However, there is a good chance that the poems were not written by Winstanley, as the subtitle indicates that several writers contributed to the volume. His collection should therefore be viewed as one of the many poetic miscellanies that were published throughout the period. As Robin Hood scholars are unlikely to have come across this poem before, it is transcribed below in full. The original spelling, italicisation, and capitalisation of each word in the original book are retained, with the exception of long [∫].

“An Invitation to Robin Hood”

SIR, Thursday next, the Archers dine,

On Round of beef, if not Sir Loin;

Though Round suits best, at B—r’s House,

A Glass to drink, and to carouse,

And is, to Marks-men, you’ll allow,

For each his Arrow, and his Bow,

Much fitter to determine Lots;

The Center shewing nearest Shots:

The Day then, Sir, to celebrate,

And crown each Archer’s lucky Fate,

The Muse your Company bespeaks,

To shoot, at least, for Ale and Cakes;

And, Sir, whoever wins the Prize,

To do him Justice to the Skies.

“Robin Hood’s Answer”

Untouch’d by Phoebus’ scorching Rays,

And his poetick Fire,

Victorious Laurel, not the Bays,

Is all my Soul’s Desire.

Soon will the rash Apollo know,

The Danger of inviting,

An Archer armed with his Bow,

And Impliments for fighting.

The Round of Beef with all it’s [sic] Charms,

Will small Protection yield,

Against an Archer’s conquering Arms,

Tho’ turn’d into a shield.

His Butt he’ll make it, which shall feel,

The Marks of his Disdain,

His Arrows tipt with Blades of Steel,

Shall pierce thro’ ev’ry Vein.

The Vict’ry gain’d, he scorns to boast,

For gen’rous Deeds renown’d;

Then to the Round around we’ll toast

‘Till all the World turns round.

Thus writeth in a merry mood,

Your humble Servant Robin Hood.[4]

Commentary

The classical imagery in the poem is self-evident: Apollo (also known as Phoebus), is the Greek god of music, poetry, art, and archery, and he is holding a feast for all legendary archers. The feast will feature an archery contest in which all of the bowmen will test their skills. Winstanley will also be in attendance. He desires Robin Hood to be present, so Winstanley writes him an invitation. Robin responds that he will attend, but he will come to win the contest, outshining even Apollo himself. After Robin has won the contest, he will then feast with the rest of the archers.

There are several reasons why neoclassicism became prevalent in art, literature, and architecture in Britain during the eighteenth century. Joseph M. Levine argues that it was the result of several factors: antiquity was viewed as a “refined,” “polished,” and “civilized” age in which men enjoyed political liberty. This was perfect for England’s polite and commercial elites who viewed themselves as the vanguard of civilisation and liberty.[5] Moreover, classicism was linked to ideals of heroism during the eighteenth century.[6] Winstanley and even the “Augustan” Addison believed that Robin was a hero, one who surpassed even Apollo in his skill and bravery.

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Politeness epitomised: Rev. D’Ewes Coke and Family

In general, the ancient Greeks did not consume great quantities of meat. The references to beef, in contrast to the classical imagery present in the play, lend an air of Englishness to the poems. Perhaps this is Winstanley’s attempt to provide continuity with earlier Robin Hood texts. The outlaws in both the medieval and post-medieval tradition are frequently seen feasting. Feasting occurs in the first and seventh ‘fyttes’ of A Gest of Robyn Hode, and illustrates the truth, honor, and fellowship of the outlaws’ society.[7]

Smith, James H., active 1781-1789; Sir Thomas Egerton, Bt, as an Archer in Heaton Park
Thomas Egerton as Apollo Belvedere (c) Manchester Museums and Galleries.

Admittedly, it is venison that the outlaws eat in earlier Robin Hood texts. The consumption of beef in Winstanley’s connects the recurrent motif of feasting in the Robin Hood tradition with eighteenth-century British patriotism. During the eighteenth century in which Britain was involved in many wars and a number of these were fought either directly or indirectly against France, beef became a patriotic symbol.[8] It was assumed that the beef fed to English soldiers made them hardy and strong, in contrast to the slim and underfed continental soldiers.[9] The image of the strong Englishman fed on a diet of beef appeared numerous times in contemporary popular culture. In Henry Fielding’s very popular play The Grub Street Opera (1731) contained a patriotic ballad entitled The Roast Beef of Old England. The same theme that was taken up by William Hogarth in an eponymous painting completed in 1748. Fielding’s song was soon set to music and became a military anthem. Later in the century, especially during the Napoleonic Wars, the portly/stocky John Bull, one of England’s national symbols, was often depicted as gorging himself on beef.[10]

Why Winstanley chose to author this poem is unclear. As so little is known of his life, his reasons can only be speculated at. Perhaps he had grown up reading a version of the frequently reprinted eighteenth-century ballad collections known as Robin Hood’s Garland or The English Archer. As a whole, Winstanley’s book appears to have received a favorable reception from some major eighteenth-century cultural figures, such as Jonathan Swift, Colley Cibber, and Alexander Pope.[11] Miscellany collections of poetry, such as Winstanley’s volume, were extremely popular during the eighteenth century. They were not published in order to create a canon of poetic taste but instead were published to provide a snapshot of the popular literary tastes of the moment.[12] And this is why their content is often diverse, explaining why the text of a cheap seventeenth-century broadside ballad such as A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour (which also features a Christmastime feast on beef) appears alongside poetry written by John Dryden in the same volume.[13]

In conclusion, R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor were quite dismissive of texts from this period, and they included one eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballad in their anthology, for instance, only to illustrate what in their words was

“the imaginative poverty as well as stylistic debasement that overtook the legend of the greenwood during the course of the eighteenth century.” [14]

Similarly, while Stephen Knight’s research is substantial concerning earlier texts and post nineteenth-century sources, there is still a relative neglect of eighteenth-century works in all three of his monographs. Thus Robin Hood’s appearance in eighteenth-century texts certainly is an area which requires more research.


References

[1] Rosemary Mitchell, Picturing the Past: English History in Text and Image, 1830-1870 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 9.

[2] Stephen Basdeo, “If They Must Have a British Worthy, They Would Have Robin Hood.” Robin Hood Scholars: IARHS on the Web – The Web Presence of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, accessed August 12, 2016, http://robinhoodscholars.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/notes-from-greenwood-if-they-must-have.html.

[3] Bryan Coleborne, “Winstanley, John (1677?–1750)” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29758.

[4] John Winstanley, Poems Written Occasionally, Interspersed with Many Others by Several Ingenious Hands (London, 1742), 210-212.

[5] See Joseph M. Levine, “Why Neoclassicism? Politics and Culture in Eighteenth-Century England,”Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 25, no. 1 (2002): 75-101; and Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

[6] See A. D. S. Smith, “Patriotism and New-Classicism: The ‘Historical Revival’ in French and English Painting and Sculpture, 1746-1800.” PhD diss., University of London, 1987.

[7] Basdeo, Stephen, Robin Hood: The Life and Legend of an Outlaw (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2018); Douglas Gray, “The Robin Hood Poems,” in Robin Hood: Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism, ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: Brewer, 1999), 3-37 at 26-27. See also Stephen Knight, “Feasts in the Forest,” in Telling Tales and Crafting Books: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. Ohlgren, eds. Alexander L. Kaufman, Shaun F. D. Hughes, and Dorsey Armstrong. Festschriften, Occasional Papers, and Lectures XXIV (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2016), 161-75.

[8] For example, the wars that Britain fought either directly or indirectly against France include The Great Northern War (1700-1721), The War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), the Jacobite Rebellion (1715), Drummer’s War (1721-25), The War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), The Second Carnatic War (1749-1754), The Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), The War of American Independence (1776-1783), and the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815).

[9] Hannah Velton, Cow (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), 132-133.

[10] See Mark Bryant, The Napoleonic Wars in Cartoons (London: Grub Street Publishing, 2009).

[11] John Winstanley, Poems Written Occasionally, xv-xxv.

[12] “Miscellanies and Eighteenth-Century Print Culture.” Digital Miscellanies Index, accessed August 13, 2016, http://digitalmiscellaniesindex.org/about/miscellanies.php.

[13] ”A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Shewing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour,” in The Sixth Part of Miscellany Poems, Containing a Variety of New Translations of the Ancient Poets, Together with Several Original Poems by the Most Eminent Hands. Publish’d by Mr. Dryden (London: J. Tonson, 1716), 346-352.

[14] R. B. Dobson and J. Taylor, eds., Rymes of Robyn Hood: An Introduction to the English Outlaw, 3rd ed. (Stroud: Sutton, 1997), 183.

Image Credits: Frontispiece to John Winstanley’s Poems Written Occasionally (Dublin: Powell, 1742). Digitised by University of Michigan and Made Available via The Internet Archive.

Robin Hood, a Foundling

By Stephen Basdeo

As one of England’s most famous historical figures, the name of Robin Hood appears in countless records. The first record we have of a man named Robin Hood is in the York Assize Records for the years 1225–26. This man is listed as a ‘fugitive’ and it is him whom scholars such as J. C. Holt argue was the ‘real’ Robin Hood. The fictional outlaw who appeared in countless poems, songs, ballads, and novels also inspired other people to take his name. Thus we have Robin Hoods who appear in medieval court records during the 1300s and the 1400s.

On a recent work-related trip to London, I got chance to pop into the Foundling Hospital where, to my surprise, I found another person—a young boy—also named Robin Hood, although he did not live in the medieval period but actually lived in the Georgian era.

How on earth did a lad called Robin Hood appear in the records of an eighteenth-century institution?

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To begin with, let us briefly consider the context:

A ‘foundling’ is an archaic term for our modern word ‘orphan’, although a foundling usually would have had no knowledge of whom his parents were, whereas orphans might well do, and foundlings were usually from poorer families.

Foundling (noun): an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.

If you were poor in eighteenth-century London—if you had found yourself out of work, or if you were a woman and your husband had died leaving you penniless—you weren’t totally friendless. Since the passage of the Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, the government deemed that parishes should assist those who had fallen on hard times by giving them ‘outdoor relief’. Paupers could apply to the local parish and they would be assisted with money, food, clothing, or goods to get by until their situations improved. This was often much preferable to having them enter one of the parish almshouses or workhouses.

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A 19th-century painting entitled The Pinch of Poverty, highlighting the hardships which many women faced if they had been abandoned by or lost their partners.

If you were a woman on your own in London with a child or several children to support, you might leave your child in the care of the Foundling Hospital. This was often done in order for a woman to get back on her feet while she worked and earned money, with the intention of collecting her child later once she was earning a bit more. The child may also have been born out of wedlock, which would have made it difficult to for her to secure work if she had a child, owing to the prejudices of the time.

At other times, condemned criminals might, in their last hours, implore the governors of the hospital to take care of their children after death. Giuseppe Ricciardelli, an Italian immigrant sentenced to death in 1752, wrote to a friend and asked him whether he might do him one last favour after he had gone:

…and particularly beseeching you, if possible, to get the Child to be admitted into the Foundling Hospital and educated in the Protestant Religion.[i]

The Foundling Hospital was set up in Bloomsbury by Thomas Coram in 1739; the first children admitted were sent to live with nurses before a purpose-built facility was opened in 1745, the remains of which can be visited today at Coram’s Fields, London.

Coram was a naval captain but on his retirement, but the reason why he set up the hospital was because, having returned to London, he was dismayed at what he saw: orphans living on the street left to fend for themselves. While he and his wife did not have children of their own, they resolved set themselves a mission to save the children.

ATC_06_Henry-Nelson-ONeil-A-Mother-Depositing-Her-Child-at-the-Foundling-Hospital-in-Paris-1855-©-The-Foundling-Museum
Henry Nelson O’Neil, A Mother Depositing Her Child at the Foundling Hospital, 1855 © The Foundling Museum, London

To raise money, the Corams enlisted the help of the great and the good and got them to donate money. Georg Handel lent his assistance and even conducted a special performance of his celebrated oratorio Messiah for a charity concert—the concert was fully booked and tickets for the event ask ladies not to wear their hoops and gentleman to attend without their swords. The Corams made the plight of pauper children fashionable.

So how did a child end up in the Foundling Hospital?

A mother would deposit her child with the receiving officer. The mothers would leave some kind of token with the hospital so that they would know their child if they returned to collect them at any point. These tokens could be all sorts of items: the exhibits in the Foundling Hospital show that mothers left rings, coins, buttons, badges, pieces of string and even nuts. The fact the hospital still has many of these tokens is a sad testament to the fact that many mothers and their children were never reunited.

Tokens-©-The-Foundling-Museum-Object-Handling-2-1
Tokens of unclaimed children (c) Foundling Hospital, London

Once the child had been admitted, they were given a new name which was entered in the register. There is a wonderful assortment of names to be found in the records of the Foundling Hospital, which were often taken from famous historical figures. It was hoped that a new name might enable the child to have a completely new start and that their lives might be free from prejudice, particularly necessary if their mother was a ‘fallen’ woman.

As one might expect, quite a few were named after their ‘adopted’ father, Thomas Coram; there are a few Walter Raleighs and Francis Drakes, named after the illustrious Elizabethan seafarers; and it is in these records that we find our little Robin Hood, a name given him by a Mr Edwards who worked at the Foundling Hospital.[ii]

Robin Hood Foundling
Robin Hood’s name can be seen on the right-hand side, second entry down.

Robin’s parents’ names are not recorded, and we do not know his date of birth, but we know that he was baptised on 25 May 1746. He would have been less than a year old when admitted and, just like the children admitted to the hospital in the earliest days, would have been sent to live in a foster home until the age of 5. He would then have been readmitted to the hospital to receive a rudimentary education, until having been apprenticed to a trade or forced to enlist in the military at age 15.

Further archival work will be required to ascertain what happened next to our eighteenth-century Robin Hood. Luckily, there are no records of anyone bearing his name hanged in the Old Bailey Record (which are all now online, free to search and view) — maybe he went on to prosper in a trade? Maybe, and hopefully, he may finally have been reunited with his mother who left him at the hospital in the hope of a better life?

Maker-Not-Muse
The Foundling Restored to its Mother (c) The Foundling Hospital, London

References

[i] The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, 23 March 1752, cited in Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 259.

[ii] The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; General Register Office: Registers of Births, Marriages and Deaths surrendered to the Non-parochial Registers Commissions of 1837 and 1857; Class Number: RG 4; Piece Number: 4396

Further Reading

Berry, Helen, Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019)

Holt, J. C., Robin Hood, 2nd Edn (London: Thames and Hudson, 1989)

 

“Confusion, horror, and bloodshed”: Joseph Ritson’s Eye-Witness Account of the Gordon Riots in 1780

By Stephen Basdeo

Unless you have been living under a rock, you will have noticed that across the English Channel in France, quite a few people are very, very annoyed with the current administration. The people of France, having had a major revolution between 1789 and 1799, and large-scale rebellions in 1830, 1832, 1848, 1871, and 1968, have something of a reputation for rioting.

Ritson 1
Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Yet there was a time that the English were known as the rebellious people of Europe. During the 1700s, riots frequently broke out in the capital; it was an era in which, according to Pat Rogers, ‘King Mob might resume his reign after the briefest interregnum’. One of the worst of these riots was the Gordon Riots in June 1780 when, for just over a week, London was under mob rule. The diaries of a young conveyancer, named Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), who had recently moved to London offer an interesting eye-witness account of those weeks.

Ritson had been a legal apprentice in his home town of Stockton but was encouraged to move to London by his employer, Mr Robinson, because he felt that the young Joseph’s talents and ambition would be put to better use in the capital than they ever could be in a provincial northern town. So, at the age of 23 this young lad, from a poor family of yeoman farmers in Stockton, set off to London on foot with nothing but a knapsack containing two shirts.

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18th-century Stockton

He found lodgings at Grays Inn and, almost immediately as he arrived in 1776, found employment as a clerk in the firm of Masterman and Lloyd on a salary of £150 per year—he was hardly poor on this salary, but he was not exactly rich either. While he no doubt applied himself diligently in the service of his employers, his real passion lay in researching ancient books and manuscripts and writing history books.

There is little political comment in Ritson’s letters until the period of the French Revolution, other than a few snipes at both the Whigs and the Tories. Although he had his own faith, furthermore, he appears to have regarded it as a private matter and rarely passed comment on religious subjects. He was unusual, however; Britain had been a Protestant nation since the sixteenth century and Catholics were forbidden from holding public office, attending universities, or even serving in the army. The establishment was paranoid that any adherent of the Catholic religion might get close to power—Britain had after all gotten rid of its pro-Catholic monarch in 1688 and replaced him with a Protestant King and Queen, while Catholics had largely supported the Jacobite rebels in 1715 and 1745. A large part of Britain’s emerging national identity was founded upon loyalty to the Protestant Monarchy; to be a Catholic in eighteenth-century England must have felt similar to what it was like being a communist in McCarthy-Era USA.

But in 1778, Britain was fighting a war against its Americans colonies who wanted independence, and France who decided to support the Americans. Britain needed soldiers, and so the government—supported by Parliament—thought that it might be expedient to lift the ban on Catholics serving in the army as well as granting them some civil liberties, all contained in the Papists’ Act.

While Ritson paid no heed to what was going on in Parliament, a young Scottish nobleman named Lord George Gordon got angry. He signed up to the Protestant Association—a kind of early modern extra-parliamentary pressure group—and became its president in 1779. He petitioned King George III on numerous occasions to repeal the Papists Act, but the king just humoured him. Annoyed with the rejection of his numerous appeals, on 29 May 1780, Gordon rallied the members of his Protestant Association and marched on the House of Commons to deliver a final petition.

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Lord George Gordon

The anti-Catholic crowd grew in size and eventually numbered 60,000 people. When parliamentarians refused to debate the public’s petition, the crowd got angry and began attacking some members of the House of Lords.

Things spiralled out of control quickly.

Naturally, the young Ritson, who was very close to his mother back in Stockton—who at this point was gravely ill—sought to reassure her that he had come to no harm. After all, news still travelled fast in the Georgian era:

Grays Inn, 7th June, 1780

Dear Mother,

I am very well and am much grieved to find that you should continue otherwise, but hope to God you will soon get better of your complaint … the confusion which reigns here would have prevented me from writing sooner. A general spirit of discontent has long been increasing among the people: it has at last broken out among the lower class in London.[i]

It will be noticed that Ritson here foregrounds the ‘spirit of discontent’ among the poorer classes of people. Yes, he acknowledges later in his letter that he personally saw many ‘Down with the Papists’ and ‘No Popery’ slogans being chanted by the people, and that some very rich Catholics had their homes burnt down, but he registers their primary concerns as being a general disillusionment with the establishment more generally.

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In fact, Ritson only makes a passing comment on the anti-Catholic nature of the riots but instead singles out a few other events which, to him at least, were more representative of the nature of the riots: they were an attack on symbols of state power. For example, Ritson told his mother that,

Five of the mob having been committed to Newgate, and the keeper refusing to set them free, their comrades yesternight, burnt it to the ground, and set not only their own people, but all of the debtors and felons at liberty, three or four of whom were to be executed within these few days … Sir John Fielding’s house was also plundered of everything, and the furniture,, &c. burnt in the street … Lord Mansfield’s house, in Bloomsbury Square, was burnt this morning … Lord Mansfield’s country seat, about four miles from town, is said to be now in flames … destruction has been vowed against the houses and persons of several noblemen, bishops, and gentry.[ii]

In a letter written the following week, again to his mother, Ritson told her that

The same evening on which I wrote my letter to you, but after I had finished and sealed my letter, the mob burnt the Fleet and King’s Bench prisons, and set all the debtors at liberty, and likewise the toll gates on Black-friars bridge, and the greatest part of Holborn was in flames.[iii]

How might the young Joseph Ritson—a lawyer and in some ways a representative of the legal establishment—have avoided getting his house trashed or being assaulted? We do not know exactly, but as riots were common in eighteenth-century London, he might have placed a candle in the window of his rooms. During the frequent riots of the eighteenth century, doing this signalled that you supported the rioters in whatever cause they were rioting over and you could therefore be sure that your person and your property would be safe.

But were the people whom Ritson observed all just Protestant religious bigots? No they were not, and Ritson was right to focus on the protests against symbols of power, and he stated in another place that,

No person any way innocent either has or (except by consequence) will suffer, and most of those whom they single out as examples of their vengeance, have long and deservedly been objects of public detestation, such as Lord Mansfield, Lord North, Lord Sandwich, Lord George Germaine, and others of the present scoundrel ministry.[iv]

(And neither should we be surprised at Ritson’s attitude—he was a self-professed radical and later enthusiastically supported the French Revolution).

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The Gordon Riots – By John Seymour Lucas

Edward P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), having conducted research into the events of June 1780, as well as other riots in the period, refrained from calling the Gordon Rioters a ‘mob’ but opted instead for the term ‘revolutionary crowd’.

Such revolutionary crowds passed through three stages: the first was an orderly march to parliament to deliver their petition; the second was a demonstration against parliamentarians in the immediate aftermath of the petition’s rejection. Governments do not concern themselves too much with phases one and two, other than keeping an eye on the crowd. Most mobs usually end their activities at the second phase and often the movement fades as people go home and realise that they will get no satisfaction from the government today.

The final—and most dangerous phase—of any riotous crowd is when ‘licensed spontaneity’ occurs: people unrelated to the original cause join the mob and at this point, within the crowd, anything goes as far as settling concerns with the rich. During the Gordon Riots too, there was also a significant amount of drunkenness and looting, but this did not turn the population too much against the rioters; in societies where a large part of the population are or feel that they are excluded from political discussion, any actions that the rioters take are generally approved of or at the very least not condemned by the people-at-large. This is what is happening in Ritson’s account. The eccentric bookworm has not participated in the riots himself but he understands that the mob are settling a score with the rich and he feels that they are justified in doing so.

Eventually the army was called in because at this point in time, Britain had no professional police force but relied on a corrupt system of thief takers and bailiffs to uphold law and order. There were some constables charged with keeping the peace, known as Bow Street Runners, who worked out of John Fielding’s Bow Street Magistrates Office, although the punishment meted out to Fielding’s house gives us an indication of what the crowd thought of these guys. The army quelled the rioters: the total costs of the damages inflicted by the mob in just one week totalled £200,000. A total of 32 private homes were destroyed as well as numerous businesses. Ritson’s account offers us an interesting eye-witness perspective on the most notorious riots in London history—an event which has become central to the study of plebeian resistance to the establishment.

Notes:

[i] Joseph Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, ed. by Harris Nicholas, 2 vols (London: William Pickering, 1833), I, pp. 14–15.

[ii] Ibid., p. 16.

[iii] Ritson, ‘Letter VII’, I, p. 18.

[iv] Ritson, ‘Letter VI’, I, p. 16.

Further Reading:

Hitchcock, Tim and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

Rogers, Pat, Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift and Grub Street (London: Methuen, 1980)

Thompson, E. P., The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963)