The ‘Public School’ Robin Hood: Imperial Ideology in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Children’s Books

A paper delivered at a conference entitled: ‘Packaging the Past for Children, c.1750-1914’ at the Senate House, Durham University, 6 – 7 July 2016


During the late-Victorian and Edwardian period many children’s books telling the story of Robin Hood were published, such as John B. Marsh’s Robin Hood (1865), Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood (1883), Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (1912), and Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917). Stephanie Barczewski argues that Robin Hood in late Victorian children’s books is an anti-imperialist figure, and she bases this assertion largely upon the fact that Robin Hood children’s books are critical of Richard I’s foreign adventures. Yet the situation was more nuanced than that: many of the late Victorian Robin Hood children’s works that were published in the period projected Robin Hood and his fellow outlaws as men who lived up to the Public School Ethos, cultivating the virtues of athleticism, fair play, chivalry, and devotion to duty. Indeed, Edward Gilliatt’s novel In Lincoln Green (1898) is even set in a very ‘Victorianised’ medieval public school. Thus these works represented the ideal qualities that young men would need if they were to serve the country, and thus, as the proposed paper argues, were subtly imperialist.

J. Walker McSpadden’s Robin Hood (1930 edition)


In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a horde of Robin Hood’s children’s books were published. Imperialism is not often associated with retellings of the Robin Hood legend in the nineteenth century, much less in any era. In fact, Stephanie Barczewski argues that Robin Hood in the nineteenth century, especially in children’s books, was an anti-imperial figure. [1] As this paper will show, however, the relationship of Robin Hood to imperial ideology in the nineteenth century is more nuanced than that: these authors certainly do critique some of the domestic problems caused by the expansion of empire, but no author of Robin Hood children’s books can be seen arguing that Britain should not participate in imperial adventures abroad. Furthermore, these works represented the qualities that young men would need if they were to serve the country. Robin Hood is seen to display the values of the Public School Ethos: displaying sportsmanship, manliness and devotion to duty. These values sought to prepare boys for a life of imperial service. [2] The end result of this ethos was intended to be:

A Christian gentleman […] who played by the rules, and whose highest aim was to serve others. [3]

Given the fact that these books are so generic to the extent that to read one is to read them all, this paper takes a thematic approach to discussing these texts, discussing the texts according to the constituent values of the ethos referred to previously. Thus the argument of this paper is that, far from propagating an anti-imperial message, these books were subtly imperialist because they represented the qualities that young men would need if they were to serve the country.

Robin Hood in Early Nineteenth-Century Literature

B. A. Brockman condescendingly wrote in 1983 that:

Robin Hood […] remains the property of children and a few (perhaps childlike) academics. [4]

Thankfully academic scholarship has now moved on from this position, and indeed before the period which I am mostly concerned with, Robin Hood was definitely not the sole preserve of children’s literature. Before 1840, literature featuring Robin Hood was expensive and mostly for adults: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) was a scholarly two volume work , lavishly illustrated by the Bewick firm, costing 12 shillings. Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) was a three volume work, costing 31 shillings, and dealt with adult themes such as national unity. [5] Even Pierce Egan’s penny serial Robin Hood and Little John (1840) was not written solely for children but an adult audience: themes of democracy and egalitarianism are packed into half a million words printed in minute double-columned typeface. 6] And reviewers were not happy with the way Robin was portrayed in any of these works: the Robin Hood of Ivanhoe was denounced as one of ‘the lower orders’ who has taken to the road because he ‘disdained the regular pursuits of industry’. [7] In 1820, Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that

Scott has failed […] in rendering Robin Hood acceptable – the delightful hero of the old popular ballad is degraded in the modern romance into a sturdy vagrant. [8]

Egan faced the biggest criticism in having portrayed Robin as:

A thorough-bred cockney of the year of grace 1839 […] in the region of undying glory occupied by Tom and Jerry, Black Sall, and Dusty Bob. [9]

‘Tom and Jerry’ is a reference to Egan the Elder’s Life in London (1823), while Dusty Bob was a colloquial term for a parish dustman. [10] The same reviewer, however, still gives Egan credit for making Robin Hood ‘far above Jack Sheppard’, [11] which, given the contemporary furore surrounding William Harrison Ainsworth’s eponymous novel published in 1839, is at least a grudging compliment. [12] It would therefore take time for Robin Hood to be rendered acceptable to the middle-class reading public, and it is only really in the later books of which I shall now speak that Robin became a respectable hero. It seems that the only way people could portray Robin Hood as non-subversive was to infantilise him, which is what authors did in the late-Victorian children’s books which are now the subject of the discussion going forward.

Muscular Christianity and Athleticism

If one of the aims of the public school ethos was to build ‘a Christian gentleman’, then it was easy for late-Victorian authors to superimpose earlier ideas about Robin’s piety on to the new public school ethos. In Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (1912) Robin is insistent that his men should hear mass daily:

‘And now, lads,’ went on Robin, ‘though we be outlaws, and beyond men’s laws, we are still within God’s mercy. Therefore I would have you go with me to hear mass. We will go to Campsall, and there the mass-priest shall hear our confessions, and preach from God’s book to us. [13]

Gilbert RH
Henry Gilbert’s Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (1912)

Hand-in-hand with the development of muscular Christianity in the late-Victorian period was an increasing emphasis upon physical fitness. As Nick Watson, Stuart Weir, and Stephen Friend argue:

The basic premise of Victorian muscular Christianity was that participation in sport could contribute to the development of Christian morality, physical fitness, and “manly” character. [14]

The late-Victorian period was the era of the strong-man, when body builders such as Eugene Sandow went topless on stage, displaying what was considered to be the perfect male physique. [15] In late-Victorian Robin Hood’s books and children’s books in general, then, there is an emphasis upon Robin’s physique that is absent from earlier popular works such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Thomas Love Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822). In J. Walker McSpadden’s Robin Hood, in his youth Robin is

A comely, well-knit stripling, and as soon as his right arm received thew and sinew he learned how to draw a bow. [16]

Robin is not merely skilled in the use of the bow, however, but is also an excellent wrestler, and the outlaws, when not robbing people upon the highway, are said to regularly ‘amuse themselves in athletic exercises’. [17] Gilliat in his novel In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (1897), tells the reader how Robin has

Well-made arms and massive shoulders [18]

(Gilliat’s novel is even set in a quasi-Victorian medieval public school). In McSpadden’s novel, as Robin competes in the archery contest,

He felt his muscles tightening into bands of steel, tense and true. [19]

These prime physical attributes were not simply restricted to Robin Hood in these books, for of Will Scarlet is said that

He was not a bad build for all his prettiness […] those calves are well-rounded and straight. The arms hang stoutly from the shoulders. [20]

Cultivating physical prowess would enable boys – the future servants of the empire – to survive and endure in the often inhospitable environments in the colonies. In Henty’s With Clive in India (1888), for example, the hero of the novel, the young Charlie Maryatt, from an early age always participated in sports at home, and it is because of his athletic abilities that he is chosen for a dangerous mission requiring the surmounting of dangerous rivers, mountains and passes for its completion. [21] While a lot of medieval Robin Hood texts celebrate the summer time and give no consideration to how a body of outlaws living in the forest might survive in a harsh winter, some of these children’s books do recognise the fact that life for an outlaw might at times be difficult. H. E. Marshall in Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children (c.1906) reveals a little about Robin’s life in the cold winter months:

In winter the roads were so bad, and the weather so cold and wet, that most people stayed at home. So it was rather a quiet time for Robin and his men. They lived in caves during the winter, and spent their time making stores of bows and arrows, and mending their boots and clothes. [22]

Living outdoors makes the outlaws even tougher: McSpadden tells how

The wind blew the ruddy colour into his cheeks. [23]

The outlaws in Gilbert’s Robin Hood, additionally, undergo very rigorous training drills on a daily basis to keep themselves sharp and ready for battle. [24]

Sportsmanship and Fair Play

Despite having to keep themselves ever-ready for battle, the outlaws are not presented as brutes. The ideals of sportsmanship and fair play were easily superimposed onto Robin-Hood-meets-his-match scenarios by late-Victorian writers (the Robin-Hood-meets-his-match scenarios are those tales of Robin losing a fight to somebody in the forest and then making friends with them afterwards). According to John Finnemore in The Story of Robin Hood (1909), these types of situations display

The old English love of fair play and straight dealing. [25]

Edwardian illustration of Robin Hood meeting Little John

In Marshall’s Stories of Robin Hood, when Robin meets Little John and a fight with quarterstaffs ensues, in which Robin is beaten, afterwards he says to Little John that

It was a fair fight and you have won the battle. [26]

And a similar scene is acted out in Charles Herbert’s Robin Hood as, after having fought Little John, Robin exclaims:

You’ve proved yourself the best man. I own I’m beaten, and the fight’s at an end. [27]

Similarly in McSpadden’s work, when Little John and Will Scarlet first meet and have a fight with quarterstaffs, they laugh about the fight afterwards and make friends. [28] In Gilliatt’s In Lincoln Green, Robin’s son Walter, at the public school he attends, is taught to play

By all the fair rules of fighting. [29]

The fact that these mini-skirmishes in the greenwood had to be conducted according to the rules of fair play meant that real fighting was often portrayed as game in these texts. In Herbert’s text, when Robin asks Little John to join his band, he says:

There is plenty of fighting: a hard life, and fine sport. Wilt throw in thy lot with us, John Little?’ [30]

When the outlaws are faced with real danger – that is, when they face the forces of the Sheriff – this is described as nothing more than a ‘sport’. [31] Gilliat similarly refers to:

The great sport of war. [32]

The portrayal of fighting as a sport reflects how warfare was often seen by prominent imperialists in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras. Sir Henry Newbolt in his poem Vitae Lampada (1897), for example, authored the following lines which equated warfare with the games played on public school playing fields as his poem exhorts young men to

Play up! play up! and play the game! [33]

Expressing similar sentiments to Newbolt’s poem is the memorial in the main cloister of Charterhouse College which lists the alumni who have fallen in various campaigns. The deceased, according to the writing on the wall:

Played up, played up, and played the game. [34]

The sad truth is that war, in fact, was not a game in the Victorian era, no matter how ‘brave’, ‘gallant’, or ‘sporting’ war was made out to be by imperialist writers.

Duty and Patriotism

Above everything, in these novels Robin is portrayed as being unwaveringly loyal to the King and his country. In Newbolt’s The Book of the Happy Warrior (1917) which tells various stories of heroic figures from English history, including Robin Hood, the reader is told how they might best benefit from reading these tales of heroic deeds:

You will not get the best out of these stories of great men unless you keep in mind, while you read, the rules and feelings that were in their minds while they fought [… the] main ideas that were in the minds of all these great fighters of the past were these: First, service, in peace and war. [35]

Edwardian illustration of Robin Hood meeting King Richard

Gilliatt’s In Lincoln Green sees Robin’s son Walter participating in an archery contest ‘for the honour of your house and country’, [36] and at another point in the novel Robin emphasises his own commitment to ‘duty’ by exclaiming:

I am never tired when honour and duty call me. [37]

Similarly, in Marshall’s story, when the outlaws are made to recite their chivalrous oaths, they are loyal to the King first, and vow to protect the weak and needy second. [38] Towards the end of Marshall’s tale, Robin proudly exclaims:

God Bless the King […] God bless all those who love him. Cursed be all those who hate him and rebel against him. [39]

Serving the King and the nation is presented in late-Victorian and Edwardian texts as a means by which a boy might advance in the world. In Paul Creswick’s Robin Hood and his Adventures (1917) young Robin is taken to his uncle Gamwell’s estate. Upon surveying his uncle’s vast land holdings, he enquires how his uncle Gamwell became so rich, and he is informed that he was given lands as a reward for serving in the King’s army. Robin then exclaims that he hopes that he will be similarly rewarded by the King when he grows up and serves in the army. This is a message that is seen repeated in the works of Henty as well, as in With Clive in India where a young parochial boy rises through the ranks of the British army and returns home rich. Service to one’s country could be the making of a man: morally, physically, and financially.

The emphasis upon Robin’s loyalty to the King, and his duty to the nation is to be found in every late Victorian text. From a twenty-first century standpoint, it seems odd that authors adapted Robin Hood – a radical and anti-establishment figure in previous incarnations – to represent the middle-class ethos of duty to the nation and empire. But the appropriation (or misappropriation depending upon one’s point of view), of medieval heroes to this end was not only applied to Robin Hood. In Henty’s laughable A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (1898), for instance, Tyler and the peasants revolted, not simply because of the Poll Tax, but because they wanted to fight in the wars of their country but were not allowed to due to feudal laws. [40] For the record, the historic Wat Tyler and his fellow men were not fighting for the right to be able to fight in Richard II’s wars.

There was a class dimension to these ideas of loyalty and duty. Robin is always the Earl of Huntingdon in these books. They lack the democratic political sentiments that are present in Egan’s earlier and superior work. Robin does not have to be elected as he is in Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John, and there is a clear sense that he is the leader of his ‘lower class’ counterparts who knows what is best. In McSpadden’s tale, Robin is the leader of the outlaw band because he possesses ‘birth, breeding, and skill’. [41] It is almost as though Robin is the head boy of a public school house.


As we have seen, the story of Robin Hood was adapted by conservative authors who sought to adapt the outlaw’s story to project the ideals of the Public School Ethos. It was hard for authors to set Robin Hood in an actual overseas imperial setting, given that his story has historically always been associated with Sherwood Forest. These books should be viewed, then, as though the greenwood is the training ground for the imperial adventures that will come after Robin and his men have been pardoned. Such a view is borne out by the fact that in Gilliat’s book, for example, where having been pardoned by the King, most of the outlaws join Richard I on his Crusade in the Holy Land. [42] Thus far from being anti-imperial, these books promoted an imperial message and stressed the qualities that would prepare young boys for a life of imperial service.


[1] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: OUP, 2000), p.224.

[2] G. R. Searle, A New England? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p.65.

[3] Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (London: Abacus, 1994), p.207.

[4] B. A. Brockman, ‘Children and the Audiences of Robin Hood’ South Atlantic Review 48: 2 (1983), 67-83 (p.68).

[5] For information on production and pricing of Ivanhoe see Jane Millgate, ‘Making It New: Scott, Constable, Ballantyne, and the Publication of Ivanhoe’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34: 4 (1994), 795-811.

[6] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Radical Medievalism: Pierce Egan the Younger’s Robin Hood, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell’ in Leeds Working Papers in Victorian Studies Vol. 15: Imagining the Victorians Eds. Stephen Basdeo & Lauren Padgett (Leeds: LCVS, 2016), 48-65.

[7] Anon. The Monthly Review Jan 1820, 71-89 (p.82)

[8]Henry Crabb Robinson, ’Diary Entry by Henry Crabb Robinson, 21 Jan. 1820’ in Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and their Writers Ed. E. J. Morley, 3 Vols. (London: Dent, 1938), 1: 238.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See Brian Maidment, Dusty Bob: A Cultural History of Dustmen, 1780-1870 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007).

[11] Anon, ‘Modern Perversions’, p.425.

[12] See Lauren Gillingham, ‘Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” and the Crimes of History’ SEL Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 49: 4 (2009), 879-906.

[13] Henry Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood (London: T. C. & A. C. Jack, 1912), p.51.

[14] Nick J. Watson, Stuart Weir & Stephen Friend, ‘The Development of Muscular Christianity in Victorian Britain and Beyond’ Journal of Religion and Society Vol. 7 (2005), 1-21 (p.1); for another discussion on athleticism and Christianity see J. A. Mangam & Colm Hickey, ‘Missing Middle-Class Dimensions: Elementary Schools, Athleticism, and Imperialism’ European Sports History Review Vol. 4 (2002), 73-90.

[15] See David Waller, The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugene Sandow, Victorian Strongman (London: Victorian Secrets, 2011).

[16] J. W. McSpadden & Charles Wilson, Robin Hood (London: Associated Newspaper Books [n.d.]), p.12.

[17] Stephen Percy, Tales of Robin Hood ([n.p. n.d.]) p.8.

[18] Edward Gilliat, In Lincoln Green: A Story of Robin Hood (London: Seeley & Co. 1897), p.45.

[19] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.23.

[20] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.80.

[21] G. A. Henty, ‘With Clive in India’ in British Empire Adventure Stories (London: Carlton Books, 2005), 465-774 (p.570).

[22] H. E. Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood Told to the Children (London: T. C. & E. C. Jack, [n.d.]), p.11.

[23] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.33.

[24] Gilbert, Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood, p.48.

[25] John Finnemore, The Story of Robin Hood (1909 repr. London: A. & C. Black, 1935), p.x.

[26] Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood, p.16.

[27] Charles Herbert, Robin Hood (London: John F. Shaw [n.d.]), p.18.

[28] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, pp.37-41.

[29] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.116.

[30] Herbert, Robin Hoood, p.19.

[31] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.152.

[32] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.362.

[33] Henry Newbolt, ‘Vitae Lampada (1897-98)’ The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Representing the Great War: Texts and Contexts [Internet <; Accessed 21 June 2016].

[34] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London: Penguin, 2004), p.262.

[35] Henry Newbolt, The Book of the Happy Warrior (London: Longman, 1917),

[36] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.45.

[37] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.180.

[38] Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood, p.8.

[39] Marshall, Stories of Robin Hood, p.101.

[40] G. A. Henty, ‘A March on London: Being a Story of Wat Tyler’s Insurrection (London, 1898)’ The Literature Network [Internet <; Accessed 21 June 2016].

[41] McSpadden & Wilson, Robin Hood, p.30.

[42] Gilliat, In Lincoln Green, p.365.

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,
[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.

‘By god that dyed on a tree’: Crux Simplex in “A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode” (c.1450)?

Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)
Woodcut of crux simplex (1594)

A purely speculative post; I am not a medieval historian or linguist, and this is just something I’ve noticed whilst reading A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (1510). I may be wrong, and am certainly willing to be corrected; comments are most welcome!

It is generally agreed amongst most major Christian religions that Jesus Christ died on a cross; an upright stake with a crossbeam. That Christ died on a cross, however, has been debated over the centuries, and some early-modern scholars such as Justus Lipsius illustrated the different ways in which a crucifixion could be carried out. In particular, his illustration of the crux simplex in De Cruce Libri Tres (1594) shows a man suspended upon an upright stake, [1] indicating that the instrument of death used to torture Christ could have been a simpler device compared to the cross that is commonly accepted in many Christian religions, [2] although Lipsius does also include illustrations of more recognisable crucifixions carried out upon a standard cross. Even in the modern period Patrick Fairbairn in The Imperial Bible Dictionary (1874) suggested that the ‘cross’ which Christ died upon may originally have been an upright pole. [3]

It is not the intention here to debate whether or not Christ actually died upon an upright stake, but to highlight a surprisingly interesting source where it appears as though it is implied that Christ died, not on a cross but upon a tree. This source is the medieval ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode. No precise date can be given for the original composition of this ballad as it is a compilation of a number of Robin Hood tales that were originally disseminated orally, [4] although somewhere between c.1400 [5] and c.1450 [6] seems to be the consensus among researchers. The first printed appearance of the Geste, however, appeared in 1492, with successive editions appearing throughout the sixteenth century. [7] The Geste then made its appearance again in eighteenth-century ballad collections such as Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), and Francis James Child’s five-volume work English and Scottish Popular Ballads (published between 1882 and 1898). It is a long tale composed of eight ‘fyttes’ and sees Robin and his men relieve a financially distressed knight; participate in archery contests; meeting with the King; and the Geste also tells of Robin Hood’s death at the hands of the Prioress of Kirklees.

It is in Robin’s meeting with the poor knight in the first fytte that the first reference Christ dying upon a tree is found. Robin asks the knight why he is poor. The knight has had to post bail for his son who slew a man of Lancaster, and to get the needed funds he has had to mortgage his lands to the corrupt abbot of St. Mary’s in York. When Robin meets the knight, it is the day that the repayment is due, the funds for which the knight does not have. And neither does the Knight have any friends who can help him out of his financial difficulties:

Hast thou ony frendes sayd Robyn

The borowes that wyll be

have none then sayd the knight

But god that dyed on a tree. [8]

Robin lends the knight the £400 that he needs to repay the abbot, and sends the knight on his way to York with Little John acting as a man-servant. When John and the knight arrive at the Abbey of St. Mary’s, the knight initially pretends that he cannot repay the loan. He initially pleads for mercy from the abbot, but to no avail for the abbot refuses to show any leniency:

The abbot sware a full grete othe

By god that dyed on a tree

Get the londe where thou may

for thou getest none of me. [9]

To the abbot’s chagrin, the knight reveals that he does indeed have enough money to repay the abbot, and that if the abbot had been willing to show courtesy and mercy towards him, he would have been rewarded. The abbot turns to the justice who is in the room and says:

Take my golde agayne sayd the abbot

Syr justice that I toke the

Not a peny sayd the justice

By god that dyed on a tree.[10]

Whoever the anonymous author(s) of the Geste was, it is clear that he is here referring, not a cross, but to a more simple structure. When the Sheriff of Nottingham sees Little John’s archery skills on display at a shooting match, he makes a similar oath ‘by hym that dyed on a tree.’[11] There is also another similar reference later on in the ballad. After an archery contest in Nottingham, when Robin splits the arrow in two, the Sheriff recognises them and the outlaws rush to make their escape. In the ensuing affray Little John is wounded, and he asks Robin:

Mayster then sayd Lytell Johan

If thou ever lovest me

And for that ylke lordes love

That dyed upon a tre

And for the medes of my service

That I have served the

Lete never the proud sheryf

Alyve now fynde me.[12]

Now it might be thought that too much is being read into these passages, and I could just be splitting hairs (feel free to comment below). After all, a tree can indeed mean a cross. The only time that the author uses a variation of the phrases previously highlighted is at the end of the eighth fytte where it says:

Cryst have mercy on his [Robin’s] soule

That dyed on the rode.[13]

According to the Middle English Dictionary Online, the word ‘rode’ can mean ‘cross’ in the term by which it would be popularly understood.[14] It remains to ask, however, why the author, or authors, of the Geste used ‘tree’ throughout the ballad when there were words which would have more clearly conveyed the sense of a cross proper?


[1] Justus Lipsius De Crvce Libri Tres Ad sacram profanamque historiam utiles. Vna cum Notis (Antwerp: 1594), p.10.
[2] The exception to this is the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ religion. They believe that Christ died upon an upright stake, or pole with no crossbeam. Their position is explained in one of their society’s publications. See Anon. Insight on the Scriptures (New York: Watchtower Bible & Tract Society, 1988), pp.1116-1117. [See]
[3] Patrick Fairburn The Imperial Bible Dictionary (London: Blackie & Son, 1874), p.376.
[4] Stephen Knight Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), p.24.
[5] A. J. Pollard writes that ‘textual and linguistic analysis has suggested a possible date of composition of the elements [of the Geste] as early as c.1400 and dates for the compositions to be committed to writing about 1450. See A. J. Pollard Imagining Robin Hood: The Late Medieval Stories in Historical Context (London: Routledge, 2004), p.6.
[6] There is debate about the dating of A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode, but James C. Holt argues 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.
[7] Pollard, Imagining Robin Hood, p.6.
[8] Anon. Here begynneth a Lytell geste of Robyn hode and his meyne And of the proude Sheryfe of Notyngham (London: Wynken de Worde, c.1510) Cambridge University Library Shelfmark: Sel.5.18 S.T.C. No. 13689
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Frances McSparran (ed.) Middle English Compendium (University of Michigan, 2006) [Internet <<>&gt; Accesssed 14/08/2015].

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 <> 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 <<>&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

A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450)

'A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode' (Printed c.1470 by Wyknen de Worde)
‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (Printed c.1470 by Wyknen de Worde)

Lithe and lysten gentylmen, that be of frebore blode, I shall you tell of a good yeman, His name was Robyn Hode.

Due to the excellent work of the people at the the University of Cambridge, I managed to get my hands on a facsimile copy of the earliest printed Robin Hood text, A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450). To anyone who is, well, not me, this is probably not exciting. But anyway it occurred to me that I hadn’t actually written anything upon the text from which my website takes its name. So here goes.

Let me say now that I am not a medieval historian, nor am I a Middle English specialist; my specialism is 18th- and 19th- century Robin Hood literature.

The exact date that it was printed is not known, although it is said to be between the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Its composition, however, probably dates back, according to James C. Holt, to c.1450.

Robin is a very different character to the one we would see on our TV screens today. I know I’ve used that phrase a lot on my website, but of Robin Hood it is true; over time the legend snowballed and collected different aspects, evolving along the way.

Firstly,Robin is not the Earl of Huntingdon; Robin’s elevation to the peerage came in the 16th century with Anthony Munday’s two plays, The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1598), and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1601). Instead Robin is described as a ‘yeoman.’ There is debate amongst scholars about what exactly this term meant but, generally, it is someone who was of middle rank in medieval society. Robin Hood is not a peasant.

There is no Maid Marian or Friar Tuck in these poems. These characters were later additions to the legend. Neither is the Geste set in the time of “good” King Richard and “bad” Prince John. Instead it is set in the time of an un-numbered King Edward.

The setting, moreover, is not Sherwood Forest but Barnsdale Forest in South Yorkshire:

Robyn stode in Bernysdale, and lened hym to a tree, and by hym stode lyttell Johan, a good yeman was he, and also dyde good Scathelock, and Much the myllers sone…

Marian wasn't Robin's only love interest...he also had a woman called Clarinda too!
The Robin Hood of the Geste is a very different figure compared to what we’d recognise today!

The Sheriff of Nottingham is still there, however, despite the fact that the poem is set in the Forest of Barnsdale. There are also references to Doncaster, UK. The Yorkshireman in me wants to say that this is firm proof that Robin Hood was a Yorkshireman but, alas, I cannot, for another early ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk, is set in Sherwood.

The poem, or ballad, is very long and divided into eight ‘Fyttes’. It begins with Robin and his men in the forest, and this is the plot (it’s a long poem and is, of necessity, summarised here):

Fitts 1 and 2 deal with the impoverished knight who is lent money by Robin to regain his lands from the rapacious church; in the later part of Fitt 4 the same knight returns to repay Robin. In the “interlaced” episode, Fitt 3 and the first part of Fitt 4, Little John, whom Robin has sent to serve and help the knight, is sought as a servitor by the sheriff: he leaves the sheriff’s house disgruntled by his poor treatment, brings with him the Cook, and then traps the sheriff into entering the forest and losing his possessions. The second part of the Gest starts in Fitt 5 with the Sheriff’s archery contest and trap, after which the outlaws take refuge with the knight of Fitt 1. He is then, Fitt 6, kidnapped by the sheriff and rescued by the outlaws, who kill the sheriff…Fitts 7 and 8 offer a version of the well known “King and Subject” theme in which the King in disguise meets, then in some way conflicts with, one of his subjects, and the result is honor both to the king’s flexibility and also the subject’s deep-seated loyalty. In the Gest King Edward meets, engages with, and at least symbolically joins the forest outlaws. But different from Adam Bell, his offer for Robin to join his court is not successful, and the poem ends with Robin’s return to the greenwood, unhappy with the inactive and expensive nature of court life. The last stanzas, more a palinode than a climax, sketch in the story of Robin’s death. Like other heroes he is betrayed by someone close to him and leaves a shrine and a noble memory.

The tale is almost certainly comprised of a number of different tales, and most scholars agree that there is not much of a hint that Robin Hood in the Geste steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The poem simply ends with the rather vague following lines:

For he was a good out lawe, and dyde pore men moch god.

This seems like it has been tagged on to the end, for nowhere in the whole of the Geste does Robin help any poor people or peasants. And yet, whilst it is not explicitly stated that Robin steals from the rich and gives to the poor, I’d like to think that whoever heard (or read) this text implicitly understood that he did. After all, in how many of our modern-day film adaptations of the legend do we actually hear Robin utter the words: “I steal from the rich and give to the poor”? The answer, of course, is never; we implicitly understand that he does, and it does not need saying. I cannot stress enough, however, that I am not a medieval scholar, and that last sentence really is speculation on my part. Unfortunately, we cannot gaze into the minds of medieval people to see if this was the case.

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)
Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

Out of all the early English Robin Hood texts, however, this is my favourite for the following reasons:

  • Despite being written in Middle English, it’s fairly intelligible to the modern reader.
  • It’s the most “biographical” of all early Robin Hood texts, unlike, for instance, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, or Robin Hood and the Monk, which recount only episodes from the outlaw’s life.
  • You encounter Robin Hood in all his guises in this poem: he is Bold Robin Hood, the leader of a band of outlaws, and he is also a trickster.

The first time that this poem was made available to a book reading audience was in Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795). Thankfully, Ritson preserved the Middle English spelling, whilst later antiquaries “translated” it into Modern English, which I think robs it of some of its power; the Geste, and other early English texts, are the primitive poetry of the nation, part of our heritage. As such, the antiquary  in me wants to see them preserved in tact, so to speak.

It’s quite a long poem, but if you ever want to read it in full, click here – though it’s quite long!

“Bad” Prince John? Representations of the Prince in the Robin Hood Legend, c.1600-c.1800

Bad Prince John?  The Disney Perspective on Robin Hood's Character
Bad Prince John?
The Disney Perspective on Robin Hood’s Character

Prince John is now one of the stock villains of movie and television adaptations of the Robin Hood legend. He was played most recently, and excellently, by Rufus Sewell in Robin Hood (2010) starring Russell Crowe. In that move he is a conniving, manipulative, and downright “bad” character. Yet to some extent John, historically, has been a victim of what Austin Lane Poole says is:

A malign tradition, which has its origin in the nearly contemporary church historians, especially Roger of Wendover, and his embellisher, Matthew Paris, [that has] done much less than justice to the character of Prince John.

Poole recognises that John, of course, had many faults; he could be moody, spiteful, passionate, greedy, self-indulgent, genial and repellent, clever and capable, original and inquisitive. Yet these “good” and “bad” traits were shared by most members of the Angevin dynasty.

There will, of course, be debate amongst medieval historians as to just how “bad” Prince John actually was, but as Poole says, it is doubtful whether he was much better, or indeed, much worse than the majority of medieval monarchs.

It is perhaps Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) that who did the most damage to the character of Prince John in his novel, Ivanhoe (1819). In that novel, John is the typical “caricature” villain, displaying most of those odious qualities which audiences expect of the character in Robin Hood stories.

Yet before Walter Scott, John was not the confirmed villain of the legend.

Firstly, in the earliest medieval texts such as A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1400), Prince John does not appear.The earliest texts are set during the time of an un-numbered King Edward; ‘Edwarde oure comely kynge.’ In fact, the placing of Robin Hood in the time of Richard the Lionheart and Prince John was a later invention which occurred during the sixteenth century in John Major’s Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521).

The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598) by Anthony Munday.
The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598) by Anthony Munday.

Later Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights developed this theme further. Anthony Munday’s two plays, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington (1598), and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1601). In these plays Robin is elevated to the peerage, but is cast a dispossessed nobleman who has been wrongly outlawed. Robin is in love with Matilda (Marian), but he has a rival for her love in the form of Prince John. Yet Munday does not vilify John in his two plays, as Stephen Knight says that:

Prince John is quite a positive figure in the play, far from being the villain of later representations. His pursuit of Marian is caused by love, not malice, he defends Little John and vilifies Robin’s betrayers. He does have vices, being tempted to take (rather than seize) his brother’s [Richard’s] power, and is also hot-tempered.

John is a flawed and tragic figure in Munday’s plays, but more importantly for the Elizabethan audience, he is someone who stood up to the might of the Church of Rome. The historical King John had a few, shall we say, issues with the Roman Catholic Church; notably his refusal to accept Stephen Langton’s appointment as the Archibishop of Canterbury. This led to England being placed under a papal interdict between 1208 and 1213. An interdict meant that none of the population was able to partake of any of the sacraments; a serious matter in a religious age. But to an Elizabethan audience, this standoff between the King and the Church of Rome would have sat well with with a country that had recently undergone a turbulent Reformation and break with Rome. King John is almost a hero in these two plays.

Further down the line, King John is also not a “bad” figure. The ballad, Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster, is written as a sequel to the legend. Robin has been pardoned by Prince John and has become his favourite minister. But of all the King’s servants Robin is the most corrupt, and out of all the courtiers and aristocracy, it is only King John who emerges with a half-decent reputation; his minsters are corrupt, not him.

Robin Hood's Garland (c.1790)
Robin Hood’s Garland (c.1790)

Usually, most Robin Hood stories involve Prince John attempting to seize the throne of England from his brother, Richard I, with Robin, of course, playing a part in trying to stop him. Yet a c.1790 edition of Robin Hood’s Garland presents a slightly more nuanced view of the events of the 1190s:

King Richard the First, transported with zeal, blindly sacrificed every thing to it, and ruined himself and almost his whole nation, to carry on a war against the infidels in the Holy Land, where he went in person. The intestine troubles of England were very great at that time, and even John, the King’s brother, caballed to dethrone him.

Richard here is presented as a bad ruler, a man who sacrifices the nation for his personal glory. In contrast, John’s attempted seizing of the throne is presented in a better light; it is only after King Richard has virtually ruined the nation that John feels he should dethrone him.

Even in what is the most important work in the history of the Robin Hood legend, Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), despite placing Robin in the time of Prince John, Ritson makes clear that the main enemies of Robin Hood were Churchmen and corrupt clerics:

Our hero, indeed, seems to have held bishops, abbots, priests, and monks, in a word, all the clergy, regular or secular, in decided aversion, “these byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes, ye shall them bete and dynde,” was an injunction carefully impressed upon his followers: and, in this part of his conduct, perhaps, the pride, avarice, uncharitableness, and hypocrisy, of the clergy of that age, will afford ample justification.

In fact, John does not appear in Ritson’s biography of Robin Hood at all, which goes to show that, at the very least, eighteenth-century writers appear to have had a more nuanced interpretation of King John’s history; he was neither all good, nor all bad.

We are due another 3 Robin Hood movies from Hollywood, and with Hollywood’s current fetish for revising age-old legends, perhaps in these new interpretations we might see a kinder interpretation of Prince John’s character.

Whatever the facts of John’s character, however, he is an infinitely more interesting character than Richard the Lionheart in the Robin Hood legend.

‘The Outlaws’ Code’. Robin Hood: Research Update, Number 7, December 24th, 2014

Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller's Son. Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).
Robin, Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the Miller’s Son.
Scanned image from Ritson, J. Robin Hood (1795).

All organised crime gangs have certain codes of conduct which, to be counted as part of their respective gangs, they must adhere to. For the Italian Mafia there is Omerta, a code of silence which forbids them to talk about the gang to non-members. Members of the mafia are also forbidden from committing certain crimes such as kidnapping, theft (burglary, mugging, etc.), and in the past even to stay away from drug and human trafficking. The Italian Mafia was supposedly above these types of crimes, and forbade their respective members from carrying them out.

In the one of the oldest Robin Hood ballads, ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ (c.1470), Robin Hood similarly laid down a code of conduct for his men to follow. Little John asks Robin how they should conduct themselves:

Mayster, than sayd Lytell Johan / And we our borde shall sprede / Tell us whether we shall gone / And what lyfe we shall lede.

Where we shall take, where we shall leve /  Where we shall abide behynde / Where we shall robbe, where we shall reve / Where we shall bete and bynde.

To which Robin Hood replies, firstly, that the outlaws should never harm any company where there were women present and also:

Ther of no fors, sayd Robyn / We shall do well ynough / But loke ye do no housbonde harm / That tylleth with his plough.

No more ye shall no good yeman / That walketh by grene wode shawe / Ne no knyght ne no squyer / That wolde be a good felawe.

The outlaws, therefore, are to protect women, husbandmen, and those that work the land, as well as yeoman, knights, and squires. But as for members of the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin is less kind:

These byshoppes and thyse archebyshoppes / Ye shall them bete and bynde / The hye sheryfe of Notynghame / Hym holde in your mynde.

Robin Hood had two main enemies: the Catholic Church and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and gave his outlaws free rein to beat and bind them.

Organised crime historically emerges and flourishes in times where the state and its ability to enforce the law is weak (as the English State was in the late medieval period) and the local populace at the mercy of tyrant landlords. In these situations, groups that would normally be classed as criminal emerge as friends of the poor, they become, in the words of the historian Eric Hobsbawm, ‘social bandits’. Hobsbawm named Robin Hood ‘the international paradigm of social banditry’. Social Bandits, according to Hobsbawm:

Are peasant outlaws whom the Lord and State regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice…men to be admired, helped, and supported.

The ‘Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ makes no mention of Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, it merely says at the end that he ‘did pore men moch god’. This detail was added to the legend between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. By the time that Joseph Ritson produced his pioneering work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795), Robin Hood had become the ultimate social bandit:

That our hero and his companions, while they lived in the woods, had recourse to robbery for their better support, is neither to be concealed nor to be denied…[But] in these exertions of power, he took away the goods of rich men only, never killing any person, unless  he was attacked or resisted; that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took anything from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots…he was the most humane, and the prince of all robbers.

Perhaps these medieval ballads of Robin Hood and his men are recounting and glorifying the actions of medieval mobsters in the same way that movies like Goodfellas today do for us? Outlaw gangs were loosely organised, had customs, and codes of conduct, and were social bandits in the sense that they were supported by local people. Dr. Kelly Hignett of Leeds Beckett University has written a study of what is a comparable case of late-medieval organised crime gangs in Southern Russia, Dalmatia, and Bohemia, and the role which they assumed in the absence of effective state law enforcement. It was these outlaws’ codes of conduct, in which they did not (supposedly) hurt poor people, which earned them the support of local communities.

Further Reading:

Hignett, K. ‘Co-Option or Criminalisation? The State, Border Communities and Crime in Early Modern Europe’. In Galeotti, M. ed. Organised Crime in History (London: Routledge, 2008).

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969).

Robin Hood’s Garland (1856)

When you begin researching the original Robin Hood ballads, the names of a few late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century antiquarians become familiar to you. The likes of Thomas Percy, an Irish Bishop who rescued a collection of manuscripts from a house fire, and without whose efforts the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne’ (c.1450) would have remained unknown to us. Another, and perhaps more famous antiquarian, is Joseph Ritson, who in 1795 published Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. His really is a fine collection, doing exactly what it says on the tin, comprising examples of the earliest medieval ballads down to compositions from the eighteenth century. Later on, in the nineteenth century, John Gutch would expand, and critique Ritson’s work and methodology with A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode: With Other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman (1847). Finally, most Robin Hood scholars will be familiar with the work of Professor Francis J. Child in the 1880s, who collected a total of 37 extant ancient and modern Robin Hood ballads, and whose collection of Robin Hood material is said to be the most extensive.

Life and Ballads of Robin Hood (1859)As an avid ebayer,  I managed to pick up the following second hand book from 1865 entitled: The Life and Exploits of Robin Hood: And Robin Hood’s Garland (1859). It is, despite its relatively small size, a lengthy work at 447 pages (longer than the 1823 edition of Ritson’s anthology), and as far as I can ascertain contains more examples of Robin Hood ballads than either Percy, Ritson, or indeed Child. It even has examples of early eighteenth century satirical ballads such as the (it seems hitherto untapped by Robin Hood Scholars) one entitled ‘Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster’. There is also a scholarly critique of the existing theories surrounding Robin Hood’s birth, exploits, noble descent, etc., as well as the script for one of the fifteenth century May Games. It is, despite its small appearance, one of the most comprehensive collection of materials pertaining to Robin Hood, containing 45 ballads, poems or songs about the outlaw.

I have yet to fully explore some of the (hitherto unknown to me) treasures contained in this little book, but I was surprised when I did not find this work referenced in the works of modern historians and literary critics such as Dobson and Taylor’s Rymes of Robin Hood, Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, J. C. Holt’s Robin Hood, or Stephanie Barcziewski’s Myth and National Identity. Although, given the fact that some cheap nineteenth-century chapbooks such as the one i am speaking ofabove were sometimes published under different titles, it is entirely possible that this work has been scrutinised before by historians. At the very least, however, at my next PhD supervision meeting with Prof. Hardwick and Dr. Mitchell I’ll have an interesting talking point!