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.

Declaration_of_the_Rights_of_Man_and_of_the_Citizen_in_1789

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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“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.

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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.

gordon_riots

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)

 

Visions of “Piers Plowman” in the 18th Century

The best thing about having a Robin Hood theme for this blog is that it allows me to legitimately write about both crime and medievalism (medievalism, as opposed to medieval studies, examines how the medieval period has been represented by authors, artists, and writers in periods after the middle ages). Our modern understanding of Robin Hood is, of course, largely a figure of popular culture: while we know very little of who the historical outlaw may have been, we have plenty of stories about him that have survived since the Middle Ages. The first reference to Robin Hood in popular culture occurs in the B Text of William Langland’s poem entitled The Vision of Piers Plowman, which was composed between c. 1370 and c. 1390):[i]

I can noughte perfitly my pater-noster as the prest it syngeth,

But I can rymes of Robyn Hood and Randalf erle of Chestre.[ii]

Much has been written on the medieval texts of Piers Plowman, and there is even a Piers Plowman Society which aims to further research into this text. This post, however, concerns eighteenth-century views of Langland’s masterpiece.

Let us first learn a little about the context: the eighteenth century, particularly from 1765 onward, with the publication of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry published in that year, was a period in which intellectuals were gradually “rediscovering” historical English texts. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, neoclassicism was the dominant artistic and literary aesthetic mode. Authors and poets such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, and Alexander Pope, while they were admiring of early English poets such as Chaucer, more often than not held their works to be rude and unrefined. Thus, in Addison’s Account of the Greatest English Poets (1694), he gives the following opinion of Geoffrey Chaucer:

Long had our dull forefathers slept supine,

Nor felt the raptures of the tuneful Nine

Till Chaucer first, a merry bard, arose,

And many a story told in rhyme and prose.

But age has rusted what the poet writ,

Worn out his language, and obscured his wit;

In vain he jests in his unpolished strain,

And tries to make his readers laugh in vain.[iii]

In other words, the poetry of the medieval period was good, but it was rather unsuitable for the polite and polished age of the Georgian period. This is why, usually, when authors and artists in the eighteenth century wished to represent the medieval period, it was usually with a baroque or neoclassical overlay.[iv]

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Addison did not include Langland in his list of the greatest English poets, although other critics in the period credit the latter with having been

The first English poet, who employ’d his muse for the refinement of manners … by his writings, it plainly appears that poetry, and politeness, grew up together.[v]

Of course, the progress of politeness, poetry, and the cultivation of manners in the medieval period was halted, according to the author, because of the various conflicts that occurred in the Middle Ages, for ‘war and faction immediately restor’d ignorance’.[vi] It was not until the author’s own era of Enlightenment that politeness, refinement, scientific and cultural progress had resumed.

However, when serious historical research into ancient English poetry began, then such poetry began to be enjoyed for its own sake.

Antiquaries throughout the eighteenth century engaged in extensive textual analysis of Langland’s poem. The afore-mentioned Thomas Percy (1729–1811), in an essay on Langland’s poem, published in 1767, argued that Pierce Plowman, as he calls it, was the product of the poetry of the Gothic ‘race’: the influence of Anglo-Saxon poetry can be felt in the structure of Langland’s poem; in turn, as Robert Shiell’s argued slightly earlier, Langland’s poetry influenced that of John Milton. In this way, Percy and Shiell argue for an almost unbroken line of literary heritage from the ‘dark ages’ through to the late medieval period, and, of course, through Milton and Percy’s own Reliques, to the early modern era.[vii]

The noted Robin Hood scholar, Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), took over the reins of Langland scholarship.[viii] Ritson identified two different versions of Langland’s poem, and unlike other scholars before him, Ritson preferred to go back to manuscript sources rather than rely on printed sixteenth-century editions of the poem. Amazingly, Ritson’s opinion of Langland was lukewarm: in his Bibliographia Poetica (1802), he says that the poem is,

but a dull performance and scarcely merits the care of a modern impression [printing].[ix]

Eighteenth-century medievalist scholarship in general was concerned with rediscovering English literary heritage, and trying to show contemporary readers that England had a rich literary heritage just like that which predominated on the continent, even though Helen Young has recently argued in an essay for the Public Medievalist that Percy’s scholarship effectively was a work of white supremacis because it somehow “whitewashed” the Middle Ages.[x] Indeed, there is indication in either the work of Percy or Ritson that either of them assumed that their ‘race’ was superior to that of other cultures. Given the fact that Percy speaks of race in terms of linguistics, it is more likely he conceived of it in terms similar to that expressed in Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), more in terms of a ‘family’, i.e. the gothic ‘races’ spoke a different family of languages to the Latin-speaking family of people. Percy and Ritson were, in fact, conscious of the alleged inferiority of their native culture when compared to that of other cultures. This makes it difficult to believe that such scholarship ever laid the groundwork for a “white” vision of the middle ages, and by extension, laid the framework for white supremacists’ belief in racial purity.

Langland’s poem will always have a special place in the eyes of Robin Hood scholars, and indeed any medieval scholar. It is a survey of medieval life and manners which, to scholars in the eighteenth century who were just beginning to establish the discipline of medieval studies, it was invaluable.


[i] The full title in Latin is: Visio Willelmi de Petro Ploughman.

[ii] William Langland, ‘The Vision of Piers Plowman – B Text’, in The Vision of William concerning Piers the Plowman in Three Parallel Texts together with Richard the Redeless, ed. by Walter W. Skeat, rev. ed., 2 Vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), 1: 166.

[iii] Joseph Addison, ‘An Account of the Greatest English Poets’, in The Works of the English Poets, ed. by Samuel Johnson, rev. ed., 56 Vols (London: A. Strahan, 1790), 30: 34.

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

[v] The Historical and Poetical Medley: or, Muses Library; Being a Choice and Faithful Collection of the Best Antient English Poetry, rev. ed. (London: T. Davies, 1738), p. xi.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Thomas Percy, ‘On the Metre of Pierce Plowman’s Visions’, in Four essays, as Improved and Enlarged in the Second Edition of the Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, ed. by Thomas Percy (London: J. Dodsley, 1767), pp. 5-9.

[viii] The following information on Joseph Ritson’s contribution to Langland scholarship is taken from the following book: Lawrence Warner, The Myth of Piers Plowman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 2-21.

[ix] Ibid., p. 11.

[x] Helen Young, ‘Where Do the “White Middle Ages” Come From?’, The Public Medievalist, 21 March 2017, online edn., https://www.publicmedievalist.com/white-middle-ages-come/ [Accessed 11 December 2017].

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


Abstract

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.


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

Introduction

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]

Fairfight
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]

loytalty
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.

Conclusion

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.


References

[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 <https://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/20century/topic_1_05/hnewbolt.htm&gt; 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), p.vi.

[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 <http://www.online-literature.com/ga-henty/march-on-london/1/&gt; Accessed 21 June 2016].

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

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

Joseph Ritson (1752-1803)

GESTEBewick
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.

RitsonSC
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.


References

[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.
[4]Ibid.
[5]Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855), p. 159.
[6]Joseph Ritson, ‘CVI: To Mr. Wadeson’ in The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Edited Chiefly from Originals in the Possession of his Nephew Ed. Nicholas Harris (London: William Pickering, 1833), pp.5-7 (p.7).
[7]Joseph Ritson (ed.) Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw 2 Vols. (London: T. Egerton, 1795), 1, p.v.
[8]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, p.vi.
[9]Ritson, Robin Hood, 1, pp.xi-xii.
[10]See Matthew McCormack, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester: MUP, 2005).
[11]Anon. ‘Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw; to which are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes of his Life. 2 vols. 8vo. 12s. Boards’ The Critical Review or Annals of Literature, No.23 (1798), p.229.
[12]Burd, Joseph Ritson, 193.
[13]Walter Scott, The Antiquary [1816] Ed. N. J. Watson (Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2002), p.64.

‘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?


References

[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 jw.org]
[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 <<http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mec/index.html>&gt; Accesssed 14/08/2015].