Post-Apocalyptic Bandits: Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man” (1826)

I am the native of a sea-surrounded nook, a cloud-enshadowed land, which, when the surface of the globe, with its shoreless ocean and trackless continents, presents itself to my mind, appears only as an inconsiderable speck in the immense whole. [i]

The Last Man (1826)

Mary Shelley is popularly known as the author of the gothic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Her talents were not limited to the creation of horror stories, however, for, unbeknownst to most general readers today, she also gave birth to another genre: the post-apocalyptic story. The novel interests me for two reasons: I enjoy post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories, and the principal protagonist, Lionel, spends the first few chapters of the novel as a bandit.

The Last Man was published in three volumes in 1826, presents a vision of England in the year 2073: England has become a republic, but a deadly plague is sweeping the earth. Society breaks down, and England and Scotland become increasingly lawless places. On the continent, in France as in Britain, all government infrastructures have broken down and a Messiah-like cult leader has taken political power and promised his followers that, in return for their support, they will be spared from disease.

Before this nightmarish vision of society comes about, however, we first meet Lionel as a boy in rural Cumberland. Shelley’s vision of England in 2073 is a lot different to the emerging industrial powerhouse that she would have been familiar with in the 1800s. We see a predominantly agrarian country composed of peasants and lords. For her description of Lionel’s early life, Shelley follows a similar formula to that found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s History of the Highwaymen (1734), and The Newgate Calendar (1784). We are told that Lionel was born to poor but honest and respectable parents, but due to them having died when he was young, and having a duty to care for his sister, Perdita, in his adolescent years he is forced to pursue a career as a shepherd.

Title Page to the First Edition

Lionel soon finds that he must supplement this meagre income from shepherding by becoming a bandit. Although the novel is set in England in the future, Shelley likely based her depiction of banditry upon the stories she had heard of them when visiting Italy in 1818.[ii] At this time, the after-effects of the political upheavals of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), combined with rising food prices and the sale of common lands, meant that many southern Italians turned to banditry in order to sustain themselves. Eric Hobsbawm in Bandits (1969), when speaking of the types of men who turn to crime, notes that in predominantly agrarian societies such as nineteenth-century Italy, shepherds often turned to banditry, not only due to their low socio-economic status, but also because they often become acquainted with such highway robbers, which offers them a route into banditry:

There are, once again, the herdsmen, alone or with others of their kind – a special, sometimes a secret group – on the high pastures during the season of summer pasture, or roving as semi-nomads across the wide plan … the mountains provide their common world, into which landlords and ploughmen do not enter, and where men do not talk much about what they see and do. Here bandits meet shepherds, and shepherds consider whether to become bandits.[iii]

Thus Lionel tells us that,

I was in the service of a farmer; and with crook in hand, my dog at my side, I shepherded a numerous flock on the near uplands. I cannot say much in praise of such a life; and its pains far exceeded its pleasures. There was freedom in it, a companionship with nature, and a reckless loneliness; but these, romantic as they were, did not accord with the love of action and desire of human sympathy, characteristic of youth. Neither the care of my flock, nor the change of seasons, were sufficient to tame my eager spirit; my out-door life and unemployed time were the temptations that led me early into lawless habits. I associated with others friendless like myself; I formed them into a band, I was their chief and captain.[iv]

Another thing which, in agrarian societies, makes banditry an attractive option for shepherds is their existing familiarity with the terrain. This means that they are often able to attack travellers quickly, and then swiftly disappear into the hills and mountains of the countryside to avoid pursuit.[v] Although it should be said that the youthful Lionel is not the world’s most skilled bandit, for he regularly finds himself in the town lock-up:

It was seldom indeed that we escaped, to use an old-fashioned phrase, scot free. Our dainty fare was often exchanged for blows and imprisonment.[vi]

While other countries also suffered socio-economic setbacks in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, it was Italy which witnessed the largest amount of banditry. Shortly after Shelley authored The Last Man in 1826, Charles Macfarlane published The Lives and Exploits of Banditti and Robbers in all Parts of the World (1833), which deals mainly with contemporary Italian brigands. A further indication of how common ‘shepherd-banditry’ was in Italy during the nineteenth century is provided by Hobsbawm, who notes that, for example, during the 1860s, out of thirty three bandits arrested, twenty eight of them listed their occupations as either ‘shepherd’, ‘cowherd’, or ‘field guard’.[vii]

Make no mistake, however, for Lionel and his fellow brigands bear no resemblance to the ‘good’ outlaw/Robin Hood archetype:

I feared no man, and loved none … My life was like that of an animal, and my mind was in danger of degenerating into that which informs brute nature. Until now, my savage habits had done me no radical mischief; my physical powers had grown up and flourished under their influence, and my mind, undergoing the same discipline, was imbued with all the hardy virtues. But now my boasted independence was daily instigating me to acts of tyranny, and freedom was becoming licentiousness.[viii]

However, Lionel changes his course of life when the deposed king, Adrian, comes to live in the same area as Lionel, having been pensioned off by the new Republican government. It turns out that Lionel’s father had been friends with Adrian’s in his youth, and the latter does all he can to help ‘civilise’ Lionel and turn him from his lawless ways. Eventually Adrian succeeds in educating and refining the manners and morals of his new friend, and the pair forms a strong friendship.

Of course, this is not to last, for soon the plague makes its way to England spreading havoc and desolation. In this volatile situation, four people, Lionel, Adrian, and two other survivors attempt to journey to a colder climate where, they hope, the disease will not be as virulent. However, along the way all but one of them succumbs to the disease. The remaining character, Lionel, “the last man”, is then shipwrecked on a Greek island. The novel ends in the year 2100.

This is not one of Shelley’s most famous novels, but it was one of her personal favourites. Given the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic stories such as The Walking Dead, etc., perhaps you migth also consider giving it a read.

[i] Mary Shelley, The Last Man, 3 Vols. (London: H. Colburn, 1826) [Internet <> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[ii] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[iii] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p. 39.

[iv] Shelley, The Last Man [Internet <> Accessed 7 July 2017].

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Hobsbawm, Bandits, p.39.

[viii] Shelley, The Last Man, op cit.

The First Robin Hood Novel: Robert Southey’s “Harold, or, The Castle of Morford” (1791)

(This is an updated version of an earlier post I made)

Scholars generally point to 1819 as the year that the first Robin Hood novels appeared, these being the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time and Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.[i] However, an attempt was made during the late eighteenth century, well before the aforementioned works, by Robert Southey, to give Robin Hood his ‘big break’ in that most famous of literary genres. Held in the archives of the Weston Library, Oxford is an unpublished manuscript by Robert Southey for a Robin Hood novel entitled ‘Harold; or, the Castle of Morford’ (1791).[ii]

Robert Southey

Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. He was a pioneering medievalist, for in addition to ‘Harold’ he authored Wat Tyler (1794), Joan of Arc (1796), and also edited a version of the Icelandic Edda in 1797 and a version of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in 1817 (to Southey is credited the first English prose account of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as well as the first use in English of the word ‘zombie’, although the word was used in a different context than it is understood today).[iii]

There is one main issue with the manuscript: it was bound in a codex at some point during the nineteenth century; while such a practice has the obvious advantages of keeping all of the pages together, it has also meant that many of the words on the margins of the leaves have been obscured. While close attention to the context can offer clues as to the meaning, ultimately it means that oftentimes, when these words are not clear, you are guessing what Southey originally wrote. Furthermore, binding all of the leaves so tightly together has meant that, in some cases, the ink from one page has rubbed off on to the opposite page, which can in some cases render the job of transcription even more difficult. The saving grace, as far as practical issues are concerned, is that the young Southey’s handwriting is neat and legible.

The novel was clearly envisaged as a gothic tale. It opens with the short and perhaps rather dramatic sentence: ‘it was night’, which anticipates Edward Bulwer Lytton’s ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ from Paul Clifford (1830).[iv] Further gothic motifs include aristocratic villains, family secrets, betrayals, murder, as well as ghostly visions in ruined castles, as related in the following scene:

Harold […] arrived at the borders of the forest about midnight. By the pale light he discovered a castle which at first struck him as his paternal seat he advanced towards it with a hasty step. It was [illegible] and he concluded that it was not the Castle of Alnwick. He roam’d for some time amongst the ruined courts in an agony of grief the stair case was entire he determined to explore the building and if possible acquire some spot where he might rest in safety. He ascended and passed along an extensive gallery with several apartments on either side. He entered one of the smaller ones and threw himself upon the ground determined there to pass the night. He had not remained long in this situation the dismal toll of a bell from the turret roused him […] The firm footsteps of a person in the gallery struck his ear he rush’d into it and beheld at the northern end a figure in armour stalking along it turned and look’d at him by the moon beams which shone thro the broken pane he perceived the armour was bloody. He exclaimed My Father! The spectre turned into a room at the farther end of the gallery. Harold followed him but he saw no more. The appearance overcame him entirely.[v]

As with most nineteenth-century Robin Hood novels, Robin Hood is not the main protagonist but is a man who comes to the aid of Harold and King Richard I, the latter who is in disguise as a knight-errant, in a similar manner to his role in Scott’s Ivanhoe. In fact, there are some passing resemblances to Ivanhoe which definitely are deserving of further consideration: Harold is a returning crusader, just like Scott’s eponymous title character; some of the characters also bear some curiously Saxon names which are comparable to those found in Ivanhoe: there is one character named Athelwold, similar to Athelstane in Ivanhoe (Southey actually misspells Athelwold as Athelstane on one occasion).[vi] A character named Ulfrida also appears in Southey’s novel, a name similar to the crazed Ulrica in Scott’s tale. The fact that Southey and Scott were friends may suggest that Scott knew about this MS. and borrowed ideas from his unpublished novel.

There is also a clear attempt by Southey to draw upon the early modern Robin Hood tradition. A character named Aeglamour is a member of Robin Hood’s band, which suggests that Southey was aware of Ben Jonson’s The Sad Shepherd (1641), in which Aeglamour is the eponymous sad shepherd who Robin assists with his troubles (Jonson’s work had been edited for a scholarly audience a few years prior to Southey’s authoring of Harold).[vii] The Bishop of Hereford makes an appearance as one of the villains who has deprived Harold’s brother, Tancred, of his estate.

The character of Robin Hood has all the usual traits, being described as,

the famous outlaw Robin Hood, a man worthy of a better fate; the spoils which he takes from the wealthy he distributes among the poor; his birth is unknown, and it is but a very few years since he chose this barbarous way of life.[viii]

Refreshingly, there is not attempt to ‘gentrify’ Robin Hood by making him a member of the upper classes. Instead, in keeping with earlier traditions, he is depicted as a yeoman forester. We first meet him when Richard and Tancred wander into the forest, and they find that Robin Hood has kidnapped Marian, the daughter of the villainous Baron of Morcar, to marry her:

Welcome my good friends exclaimed the outlaw and you too strangers my assistants in this happy enterprise welcome. Let all be happy. Mirth and pleasure reign. My trusty friends pay homage to the queen of the forest the wife of Robin Hood. For as such I may now present her to you. What monarch can be more blest than me?[ix]

Southey’s Robin Hood is also something of a political reformer, and resolves to help Richard to rid his land of corrupt politicians. The young Southey was a firm believer in the ideals of the French Revolution, and no doubt his portrayal of Robin Hood and Richard as a reformist king stems from his enthusiasm for the rights of man.

Southey also inserts several poems into his narrative which are written in the style of ballads. This is the song celebrating the outlaws’ life:

Rises now with orient ray

Bright the gold on the orb of day

Aw’d by his effulgent light

Swiftly they the shades of night

On the leaves with silver hue

Glittering shines the pearly dew.

Scar’d by the hunters now the deer awakes

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

What pleasures can the palace yield

Equal to these woodlands give

How blissfully the outlaws live.

Who roams at will [illegible…illegible…] and field hill

How happily dwell we in the wood

And o’er the flowery field

How happy live we in the wood.

Beneath the sway of Robin Hood.

The deer with spreading antlers crowned

Stalks stately o’er the [illegible]

The bowman fits his dart

And fixes the sharp point within the victim’s heart

He falls upon the ground

We hail the prize with choral strain

Feast on his flesh and Nottingham brown ale

List to the minstrels song and merry outlaws tale

What pleasures can the palace yield?

Now we with sober mien comes

And darkness hides the sky

The labour of the day is done

And home the outlaws hie.[x]

All of Southey’s unpublished works remain in copyright until 2039, so there will be no edited version of the text before then. It is part of his juvenilia, and it is not his best work, therefore I doubt Robin Hood studies will suffer too much from its absence. Copyright issues prevent me from making my transcriptions of the manuscript publicly available, however I will be happy to answer any queries about it.

[i] See Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in the Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003); Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

[ii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 is the original manuscript. There is also a duplicate of the novel, copied out, apparently, at some point during the nineteenth century: Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114.

[iii] “Zombie”, in The Oxford English Dictionary Online

[iv] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3v.

[v] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 15v.

[vi] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 21r.

[vii] Francis Waldron (ed.), The Sad Shepherd; or, A Tale of Robin Hood (London: J. Nicholls, 1783).

[viii] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 3r.

[ix] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 10r.

[x] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121 12v-12r.

The First Robin Hood Novel: Robert Southey’s “Harold, or the Castle of Morford” (1791)

The first Robin Hood novel to be published was the anonymous Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time (1819). A few months after this Walter Scott published his enormously influential Ivanhoe (1819). Yet these were not the first Robin Hood stories written: in the vaults of the Bodleian Library, Oxford there exists in manuscript form the first Robin Hood novel: Robert Southey’s Harold, or, the Castle of Morford (1791).[1]

Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol to a middle-class family of linen drapers. At an early age his mother sent him to live with his aunt, and it is under the guidance of his aunt that his love of literature was encouraged. When the French Revolution broke out, Southey, like many contemporary Romantic-era poets, found himself in agreement with the principles of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).[2] Unfortunately, Southey abandoned his revolutionary principles in later life, and then became an ardent opponent of parliamentary reform in the early nineteenth century when he was appointed as Poet Laureate to George IV.

Southey wrote the novel in three weeks, from 13 July to 6 August 1791.[3] The young Robert Southey was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. And the novel, like his other work, Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1794), displays all of the young Southey’s revolutionary fervour. The two main protagonists of the novel are Robin Hood and King Richard II.

In the novel Richard is a reforming King committed to cleaning up Britain’s corrupt political establishment. Richard is also an atheist, evident when he exclaims:

I wish that Villain Constantine was now living. I would proclaim a Crusade against him!’[4]

It is doubtful that Richard I would ever have uttered such sentiments. But the young Southey, as Raimond highlights, never cared a fig for historical authenticity.[5]

There are clearly Gothic influences at play in the novel. Southey admitted that he was inspired to write it after having read Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596).[6] Spenser’s influence can be seen in one of the songs that Robin sings in the novel:

A lovely damsel wanton played

Within the crystal tide

And oft beneath the glassy wave

Her dainty limbs would hide.

And oft above the waves appear’d

Her gently heaving breast.

That charm alone exposed to view

For waves obscured the rest.

‘Come Lancelot’ the nymph exclaim’d

‘Tis now the time for love

For silent is the midnight hour

And pleasant is the grove.’

With that she leapt from out the waves

Exposing all her charms

‘Come Lancelot’ again she cried

‘Come riot in my arms’.[7]

Oddly, while the manuscript has been known to Robert Southey scholars almost since time immemorial, it is not referenced in any Robin Hood scholars’ works (and believe me, I have combed through their indexes and bibliographies). Even Stephen Knight, whose work upon the later Robin Hood tradition is thorough, does not seem to have been aware of the novel, although he Knight is aware of Southey’s Robin Hood poem, Robin Hood: A Fragment (1847).

Yet the novel is significant for two reasons: first, and most obviously, it constitutes the first Robin Hood novel. Moreover, it is the first radical appropriation of Robin Hood, pre-dating Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795).

The bad news at the moment is that the MS. is locked away in the Bodleian. The good news is that I have been in touch with the Director of Research at my university, Dr. Graham Roberts, and he is keen to allocate me funding in order to go and transcribe the novel and have it published.

Further updates will follow.


[1] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114

[2] Geoffrey Carnall, ‘Southey, Robert (1774–1843)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; Online Edn. Jan 2011) [Internet <> Accessed 18 Nov 2016]

[3] Jean Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’ The Yearbook of English Studies Vol. 19 (1989), pp.181-96 (p.183).

[4] Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 114, f. 180 cited in Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.

[5] Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p.183.

[6] W. A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), p.183.

[7] Speck, Robert Southey, p.184.

Thomas Love Peacock’s “Maid Marian” (1822)

Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866)

In honour of International Women’s Day, I discuss Thomas Love Peacock’s ground-breaking novel “Maid Marian” (1822).

The early nineteenth century was a good time for Robin Hood literature. The year 1818 saw John Keats and John Hamilton Reynolds write two Robin Hood poems each. In 1819 two novels featuring the outlaw hero came out: the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Neither of those novels, however, featured Robin’s love interest, Maid Marian. Marian does not figure in any of the earliest Robin Hood texts. We know that she was a feature of Tudor May Day celebrations, [1] and that from thence she made her way into Anthony Munday’s two plays: The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1597-98). She was also featured as Robin’s wife in Ben Johnson’s unfinished play The Sad Shepherd, or, A Tale of Robin Hood (1631). Despite this, Marian never seems to have figured largely in seventeenth-century ballads, apart from Martin Parker’s A True Tale of Robin Hood (1632) and, later in the century, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, although the latter ballad was never very popular, and certainly never made it into the often reprinted versions of Robin Hood’s Garland in the eighteenth century.

In fact, if you lived during the eighteenth century, the lady whom you would be familiar with as Robin’s love interest would have been Clorinda, the ‘Queen of the Shepherdesses’. Clorinda appears in a very popular ballad that was reprinted often throughout the eighteenth century entitled A Ballad of Bold Robin Hood, Showing his Birth, Breeding, and Valour, and Marriage at Titbury Hall, which, Francis James Child says, first appeared in John Dryden’s Miscellanies in 1716. Even in the afore-mentioned Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, Robin’s true love is a lady named Claribel, which is a nod to Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Fairie Queene (1596).

Title Page to Peacock’s Maid Marian (1822)

Marian’s ‘big break’, in fact, only came in 1822 with the publication of Thomas Love Peacock’s novella Maid Marian. Peacock was a friend of Romantic writers such as Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Indeed, it has been theorised by Stephen Knight that Robin and Marian in this novella are based upon Byron and Shelley. [2] Although the publication date of the novella is 1822, all first editions carry a note to the effect that the majority of the work was written in 1818. This is perhaps Peacock trying to distance himself and his work from Scott’s Ivanhoe, and to claim originality for it. As Stephen Knight notes, however, the siege of Arlingford in Peacock’s novel seems to be a little too similar to Scott’s siege of Torquilstone in Ivanhoe, and thus it is unlikely that Peacock was not at least partially influenced by Scott. [3]

The novel was originally intended as a satire on continental conservatism and its enthusiasm for all things feudal and medieval. [4] After the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), many of the pre-Napoleonic governments were restored to power. But these governments’ power rested on flimsy bases, and some governments, such as that of Spain, attempted to re-impose a new type of feudalism. [5] While the press in some continental countries was hailing the return of established monarchies and ‘the old order’, Peacock was more critical. In particular, he targeted the ‘mystique’ of monarchy and the cult of legitimacy that had grown up around monarchies in the aftermath of Napoleon’s conquests. [6] Through his novella he showed how man’s feudal overlords have always been the same: greedy, violent, cynical, and self-interested, [7] which is the reason why the aristocracy have such a bad reputation in his novel.

Peacock’s novel begins with the nuptials of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and his lady Matilda. The wedding is interrupted by the Sheriff’s men who seek to arrest him for ‘forest treason’. Robin fights of the Sheriff’s men and then takes to the woods, despoiling the Sheriff and his men of all their goods whenever they can. After resisting the advances of Prince John, Matilda joins Robin in Sherwood Forest and assumes the name of Maid Marian. Together, Robin and Marian effectively rule as King and Queen in the forest:

Administering natural justice according to Robin’s ideas of rectifying the inequalities of the human condition: raising genial dews from the bags of the rich and idle, and returning them in fertilising showers on the poor and industrious; an operation which more enlightened statesmen have happily reversed. [8]

As Peacock’s title suggests, Robin is the secondary character in the novel, with Marian being the main protagonist. She is no delicate little lady; instead she takes an active role in defending Sherwood – Robin’s forest kingdom – from the depredations of the Sheriff. Marian’s headstrong attitude is indicated in the following passage:

‘Well, father,’ added Matilda, ‘I must go into the woods.’
‘Must you?’ said the Baron, ‘I say you must not.’
‘But I am going,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will have up the drawbridge,’ said the baron.
‘But I will swim the moat,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will secure the gates,’ said the baron.
‘But I will leap from the battlement,’ said Matilda.
‘But I will lock you in an upper chamber,’ said the baron.
‘But I will shred the tapestry,’ said Matilda, ‘and let myself down.’ [9]

Marian is unsuited to the domestic sphere of life, and longs to be out in the world, as she says herself:

Thick walls, dreary galleries, and tapestried chambers, were indifferent to me while I could leave them at pleasure, but have ever been hateful to me since they held me by force’. [10]

She takes an active role in defending her home from Prince John’s soldiers, and even fights Richard I in disguise. In effect, Peacock, in crafting an image of Marian that was active, strong, and brave, he was rejecting nineteenth-century gender conventions, in which the woman of a relationship was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere. She is an emancipated woman in the Wollstonecraft feminist tradition. [11]

Illustration from Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John (1840)

The novel is also significant because it is the first time that the legend of Robin Hood is coherently articulated in the novel form. [12] Early ballads such as A Gest of Robyn Hode (c.1450) were hastily thrown together from a number of different tales, and are not classed as ‘sophisticated’ Middle English literature such as that of Chaucer’s poetry or William Langland’s Piers Plowman (c.1370). Other prose accounts of Robin Hood marginalise the hero to an extent; in Scott’s Ivanhoe, for instance, Robin only appears in ten out of forty-four chapters, and he is just one among many medieval heroes to appear in the novel. Hence Stephen Knight speaks of ‘the brilliance and influence’ of Peacock’s novel. [13]

Influential upon the tradition as a whole Peacock’s novel certainly was (I would  disagree with this somewhat, however, for after its first printing it was soon discontinued, being revived only once in the 1830s and then again in the 1890s). But I must respectfully disagree with Stephen Knight regarding the novel’s ‘brilliance’. Throughout the whole novel, we are never allowed to forget that Robin is simply a lord who is playing at being an outlaw, which is the case with all ‘gentrified’ texts where Robin is presented as a Lord. [14] Robin never faces any real danger, and his presentation as a Lord robs him of the power he possesses in Scott’s Ivanhoe. Indeed, although better than the anonymously authored Robin Hood: A Tale of the Olden Time, and the several eighteenth-century criminal biographies of him, Peacock was no Scott. Robin and Marian’s adventures in Maid Marian amount to nothing more than an aristocratic frolic – a game for the lord and lady.

Peacock, however, did set the tone for future interpretations of Maid Marian as an active, brave, and charming heroine. In Joaquim Stocqueler’s Maid Marian, the Forest Queen; A Companion to Robin Hood (1849), which was a sequel to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial, Marian is presented again as a fighting woman. The paradox is that, despite this ‘muscular’ portrayal of active femininity, Marian as a character has never been adapted by female writers. Nevertheless, the representation of Marian as an action woman is an interpretation that has lasted until the age of Hollywood; Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), the BBC Robin Hood series (2006), and the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010) all show Marian as an active and independent woman.


[1] Stephanie Barczewski, Myth and National Identity in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood (Oxford: OUP, 2001), 190.
[2] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood: Content, Form and Reception in Outlaw Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 127.
[3] Stephen Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[4] Marilyn Butler, ‘The Good Old Times: Maid Marian’ in Robin Hood: An Anthology of Scholarship and Criticism Ed. Stephen Knight (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1999), 141.
[5] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 127.
[6] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 141.
[7] Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 143.
[8] Thomas Love Peacock, Maid Marian and Crochet Castle Ed. G. Saintsbury (London: MacMillan, 1895), 126.
[9] Peacock, Maid Marian, 28.
[10] Peacock, Maid Marian, 84.
Butler, ‘The Good Old Times’, 150.
[12] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 126.
[13] Knight, Reading Robin Hood, 125.
[14] This is the case with all gentrified texts, as is the case in Munday’s plays. See Liz Oakley Brown, ‘Framing Robin Hood: Temporality and Textuality in Anthony Munday’s Huntingdon Plays’ in Robin Hood: Medieval and Post Medieval Ed. Helen Phillips (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2005), 115.

Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” (1819)


Walter Scott is perhaps the most famous Scottish novelist. Born in Edinburgh in 1771, after completing his studies he was articled to the legal profession through a friend of his father’s. Throughout his life, however, in his leisure time he devoted himself to antiquarian pursuits, avidly reading scholarly works such as Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). [1] Inspired by Percy, whose three volume work was a collection of Old and Middle English poetry, Scott went on to produce the three volume work, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-1803). Scott did not merely produce scholarly editions of old texts, however; he was also a poet, authoring several lengthy narrative poems: The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, The Lady of the Lake, Rokeby, and Lord of the Isles, to name but a few. His poetry nowadays has been all but forgotten except by scholars, and it is his novels for which he is chiefly remembered. He authored over 25 novels, most of which are now known as the Waverley Novels. Among these novels, it is Waverley (1814) and Ivanhoe (1819) which are regarded by scholars as his two ‘key texts’.

Most of his novels dealt with the fairly recent Scottish past: the eighteenth century. Waverley – the first historical novel in Western fiction – dealt with the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. His second novel Guy Mannering (1815) is a tale set in Scotland during the 1760s, while his third (and funniest) novel The Antiquary (1816) is set in Scotland during the 1790s. With Ivanhoe, Scott made a departure from Scottish history by writing a novel set in England during the medieval period. It is with Ivanhoe that Scott is said to have, in the words of John Henry Newman, initiated the Medieval Revival of the early nineteenth century.[2]

There were a few problems in the production of the novel, such as a lack of quality paper, and Scott’s health deteriorated at one point while he was writing it. [3] But in December 1819, just in time for Christmas, Ivanhoe was ready for retail, bound in three small octavo volumes and selling at a quite hefty price of 31 shillings. [4]

chapter 1st
Chapter One Frontispiece (1871 Edition)

The Framing Narrative

Although we class Scott primarily as Romantic novelist today, he would have seen himself as one of the gentlemen antiquaries of the eighteenth century, such as Percy or Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). Reflecting his love of antiquarian pursuits, the preface purports to be a letter sent from one (fictional) antiquary, Laurence Templeton, to the (also fictional) Rev. Dr. Dryasdust. The story of Ivanhoe, we are told, is taken from an ancient manuscript in the possession of Sir Arthur Wardour. Readers of Scott novels will quickly realise that this is another fictional character, taken from The Antiquary. The purpose of the novel, Templeton writes, is to celebrate English national history, especially when no one until that date had attempted to:

I cannot but think it strange that no attempt has been made to excite an interest for the traditions and manners of Old England, similar to that which has been obtained in behalf of those of our poorer and less celebrated neighbours [he is referring here to his own Scottish novels]. [5]

England is in need of national heroes to celebrate, just as Scotland, through Scott’s novels, had them:

The name of Robin Hood, if duly conjured with, should raise a spirit as soon as that of Rob Roy; and the patriots of England deserve no less their renown in our modern circles, than the Bruces and Wallaces of Caledonia. [6]

Conisbrough Castle
Conisbrough Castle, home of Cedric the Saxon (1871 edition)

The Novel

The actual novel is set during the 1190s, and England is in a parlous state, divided between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons:

A circumstance which tended greatly to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by William Duke of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. [7]

The divisions between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans come to a head while Richard I is captured by Leopold of Austria, and his brother John rules as Regent. John taxes the people heavily to pay King Richard’s ransom. In reality, John is hoarding the money for himself, hoping to raise an army to overthrow the few remaining barons who support Richard, while buying the others off.

Unbeknownst to John and his Templar henchmen, Richard has also returned to England in disguise. Finding his land in chaos, he allies with the Anglo-Saxons and outlaws roam in the forest, whilst Ivanhoe’s father, Cedric, plans on using his brother Athelstane as a rallying point through whom the oppressed Saxons can rise up and overthrow their Norman conquerors. Recognising the parlous state of the country, the outlaw known as Robin of Locksley teams up with both Ivanhoe and King Richard and so that Richard can regain control of his kingdom and thereby unite the nation. Added into this plot are vividly exciting scenes; jousting tournaments, archery tournaments, damsels in distress, and epic sieges and battles. It is a piece of pure medieval spectacle.

Scott completely invented the idea that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were at odds with each other in the 1190s. He did this because he had a message for nineteenth-century readers: society does not have to be divided the way that it was in the 1190s. The seating at the Ashby Tournament illustrates how divided English society is. The Saxons and the Normans are separated, while the burghers clamour for more prominence. [8]

Yet throughout the novel, Scott argues that if all classes of society work together, they can overcome their differences. This is symbolised in the alliance between the yeoman Robin of Locksley (the working classes), Ivanhoe (the middle class), and Richard (royalty/aristocracy). Each class has responsibilities towards and should show loyalty to one another:

The serf [should be] willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’. [9]

Medieval feudalism, where each class owed loyalty to the other, could, Scott argued, be adapted for the nineteenth century.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830
Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

And England in 1819 was a divided society. The end of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars brought in its wake a trade and financial depression along with mass unemployment. In addition, the working classes and the middle classes were agitating for political reform. Issues came to a head in 1819, while Scott was working on Ivanhoe, in Manchester. Peaceful protesters had gathered in Peter’s Fields calling for political enfranchisement. However, the local magistrate ordered the militia to charge at the protesters. Fifteen people died and over 700 people were injured.

Scott himself was horrified by this event, and the general state of the nation. Hence the reason, as I stated earlier, that he wrote Ivanhoe was to create a shared sense of history around which all people could rally. This is why we see all classes of people working together. Through Robin Hood, for example, Scott intended to show that:

From the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important role to play in the shaping of the nation […] his novel dramatizes the idea of history in which the lowest in the social order are as important as the highest. [10]

Robin Hood is the saviour of the nation in Ivanhoe – the upper classes need the working classes as much as the working classes rely on their ‘betters’.

Modern Robin Hood scholars are sometimes reluctant to include Ivanhoe as part of the later Robin Hood tradition. Indeed, when the Robin Hood Classic Fiction Library was published back in 2005, and edited by Stephen Knight, it was not included. But we owe our modern conceptualisation of Robin Hood almost entirely to Walter Scott. One scholar even goes so far as to say that Robin Hood was ‘invented’ by Scott. [11] Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe is a freedom fighter first, and an outlaw second. And when you think of it, almost every modern portrayal of the Robin Hood myth sees Robin as a political fighter first, and a thief second. In fact, as in Ivanhoe, in film and television portrayals we rarely see Robin Hood robbing anybody. Indeed, Robin is only an outlaw in Scott’s novel because he and his fellow Anglo-Saxon outlaws have been deprived of their rights (perhaps Scott is subtly arguing that if nineteenth-century politicians give the working classes a part to play in the nation, then they won’t have thieves in the nineteenth century). Out of all the heroes in Scott’s novel, it is only Robin Hood who people remember.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830 2
Title Page Illustration to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)


Even before its official release, the number of pre-orders for the Author of Waverley’s new novel were staggering; the publisher Robert Caddell wrote to his business partner Archibald Constable that:

The orders for Ivanhoe increase amazingly—they now come nearly to 5000. [12]

Scott’s novel was well-received by readers and critics. One reviewer in La Belle Assemblée wrote that:

This still nameless author [Scott went under the pseudonym of ‘The Author of Waverley] prepares us, in every story which falls from his matchless pen, for all that is interesting, and far beyond the usual style of other works of fiction. [13]

Readers seemed just as enthusiastic in their reception of the novel. Lady Louisa Stuart, in a letter to Walter Scott (she did not know he was the author), wrote that:

Every body in this house has been reading an odd new kind of book called Ivanhoe, and nobody, as far as I have observed, has willingly laid it down again till finished. By this I conclude its success will fully equal that of its predecessors, notwithstanding it has quite abandoned their ground and ploughed up a field hitherto untouched. [14]

Amongst all the praise being heaped upon Scott there were some dissenting voices. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), for instance, called it a ‘wretched abortion’. [15] But on the whole most reviews were favourable.

Afterlives and Imitations

Scott’s novel was quickly adapted for the stage. At one point in London there were four concurrently running theatre shows, each which showed a different scene from the novel. [16] While the novel was expensive at 31 shillings, people from the poorer classes could read one of the many chapbook adaptations in which the story was condensed into a 24 page pamphlet such as Ivanhoe; or The Knight Templar and the Jew’s Daughter (n.d. but c.1819).

For a more striking visual representation of one of the scenes in the novel, people could go and see the large painting (see header image) by Daniel Maclise entitled Robin Hood and His Merry Men Entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest (1839). Additionally, Frank William Warwick Topham painted The Queen of the Tournament: Ivanhoe (1889). If you look in Leeds City Centre today, in one of the Victorian arcades you can see the Ivanhoe clock!

Ivanhoe clock
Ivanhoe Clock, Thornton’s Arcade, Leeds c.1890

Whilst most of the characters from Ivanhoe have faded from memory, Scott’s Robin of Locksley was the model, as I suggested earlier, for every subsequent nineteenth-century portrayal of the outlaw myth. Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (1840) casts Robin as a Saxon freedom fighter, as does Thomas Miller’s Royston Gower, or the Days of King John (1838). Even the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood retained the idea that Robin Hood was an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter.

ivanhoe comic
Ivanhoe Comic [Source: Wikipedia]

Later in the nineteenth century, Ivanhoe began to be regarded as a story that was mainly for children. Indeed, Charles Hunt painted Ivanhoe, where Victorian children can be seen acting out the jousting tournament in 1871. So we begin to see adaptations of Scott’s story such as The Story of Ivanhoe for Children (1899). Additionally, a whole series of illustrations was completed in the early twentieth century by the American artist Frank Schoonover (1877-1972) for children’s copies of Ivanhoe.

Adaptations for children did not end in the nineteenth century, however; during the 1940s, with the rise of the comic book, Classic Comics released a shortened version of Ivanhoe (1941).

There have been movie and television adaptations of Ivanhoe, and some are better than others. The 1950s American version is perhaps the worst of the lot; although smaller in budget, the best version to watch is probably the 1982 television series starring Anthony Andrews as Ivanhoe. The most recent adaptation came in the late 1990s, and attempted to be a ‘grittier’ version than the 1980s version, but it feels less ‘worthy’ of being an adaptation of a Scott novel than the 1980s version due to poor acting and obviously low-budget sets.

For more information on forthcoming ‘afterlives’ and adaptations of Walter Scott’s work, see Dr. Daniel Cook’s Authorship and Appropriation website which ‘invites writers and artists of all kinds to achieve one ambition: rework the writings of Walter Scott for a new generation’.


There was no doubt of Scott’s popularity while he was still living, but after his death his popularity with readers and scholars alike appears to have enjoyed both high and low points. Yet Ivanhoe is significant in view of the fact that he indeed ‘first turned men’s minds in the direction of the Middle Ages’. He inspired a whole host of medievalist novels, including George R. R. Martin, the author of Game of Thrones, who recommends that all of his fans should at least read Ivanhoe. Part of this post was to encourage you, if you have not read Scott’s Ivanhoe, to do so. As Charlotte Bronte said in 1834:

For fiction, read Scott alone, all novels after his are worthless.

I would never be so bold as to say that all fiction after Scott is worthless, but he is an author who is worthy of your attention.


[1] David Hewitt, ‘Scott, Sir Walter (1771–1832)’ in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
[2] John Henry Newman cited in Alice Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’ Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), 315-332.
[3] Jane Millgate, ‘Making It New: Scott, Constable, Ballantyne, and the Publication of Ivanhoe’ Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34: 4 (1994), 795-811.
[4] All first editions, however, carry the date of 1820 on their title page, as it was originally scheduled for a release in January of the New Year.
[5] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance Ed. Andrew Lang (London: MacMillan, 1910), xliii.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Scott, Ivanhoe, 3.
[8] Paul deGategno, Ivanhoe: A Reader’s Companion (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 39.
[9] Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, 324.
[10] W. E. Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), 230-234 (231).
[11] Simeone, ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’, 230.
[12] Letter from Robert Cadell to Archibald Constable 19 Nov 1819. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh MS 323, fol. 76v.
[13] Anon. La Belle Assemblée, Jan 1820, 42–44.
[14] The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. Grierson et al, 13 Vols. (Edinburgh: Constable, 1932), 6: 115-116.
[15] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 Vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956–71), 6: 24–25
[16] See the chapter ‘Adapting the National Myth: Stage Versions of Scott’s Ivanhoe’ in Philip Cox, Reading Adaptations: Novels and Verse Narratives on the Stage, 1790-1840 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), 77-120.

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

Robin Hood in Romantic Period Poetry

Robin Hood and King Richard lead the rescue of Ivanhoe.
Robin Hood and King Richard lead the rescue of Ivanhoe.

Romanticism was a cultural and intellectual movement spearheaded by poets, artists, writers, sculptors and musicians. Whereas in the eighteenth century men such as Joseph Addison (1672-1719) complained that rural people and provincial towns were a little backwards in terms of manner and breeding, and viewed the urban area as the centre of progress, Enlightenment, and politeness, artists and thinkers during the Romantic period idealised nature and rural areas. Stories and figures from the medieval period provided the Romantics with inspiration to draw upon in their works, in contrast to the neo-classicism of the preceding century.

An 1816 print emphasising the difference between the neo-classical style and the Gothic [Source: Wikipedia]
An 1816 print emphasising the difference between the neo-classical style and the Gothic [Source: Wikipedia]

The Romantic period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was therefore a reaction to the “rationality” and scientific thought which had been current throughout the 1700s, as well as the increasing industrialisation and urbanisation of the United Kingdom, during which, according to William Blake, “dark Satanic mills” began to appear up and down the country.

Robin Hood, living as he did in the forest, was an ideal subject for the Romantics, and the legend provided the middle- and upper-class poets and writers with a locus of nostalgia with which to glorify the medieval period. To the Romantics, the medieval period was almost like a rural idyll, when men were free and not wage slaves, and a period of paternalism and harmony between the different sections of society.

In the poem Robin Hood: To a Friend (1820) written by John Keats, the writer laments the loss of the medieval period:

No! those days are gone away,
And their hours are old and gray,
And their minutes buried all
Under the down-trodden pall
Of the leaves of many years:
Many times have winter’s shears,
Frozen North, and chilling East,
Sounded tempests to the feast
Of the forest’s whispering fleeces,
Since men knew nor rent nor leases.


And if Robin should be cast
Sudden from his turfed grave,
And if Marian should have
Once again her forest days,
She would weep, and he would craze:
He would swear, for all his oaks,
Fall’n beneath the dockyard strokes,
Have rotted on the briny seas;
She would weep that her wild bees
Sang not to her–strange! that honey
Can’t be got without hard money!

The author yearns for a bygone age, in which ‘men knew neither rent nor leases’. If Robin were to be alive in the 1800s, exclaims the author, ‘he would craze’ at the deforestation and urbanisation taking place in Britain which was steadily eroding his favourite haunts. One of the reasons that Robin Hood’s “profession” of highway robbery was dying out in the 1800s, says Gillian Spraggs, was because areas such as London had rapidly expanded, and former villages such as Hackney and Lambeth were now a part of the sprawling capital.

John Keats (1795-1821) [Source: Wikipedia].
John Keats (1795-1821) [Source: Wikipedia].

Moreover, Keats laments the change in social customs which was occurring in the early nineteenth century. In modern and urbanised societies, where people are  anonymous to one another, written contracts and money dominate relations and interactions between men. A person’s “word” is no longer surety enough. Similarly, Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto (1848) would write that relationships between men had been reduced to what he called  ‘the callous cash nexus’. So if the medieval Marian were to return to the 1800s, she would be shocked that she would have to purchase something which previously had been freely available to her.

Later poets would also use Robin Hood as a locus for nostalgia. A brilliant poem was written in by W. J. Linton (1812-1897) in 1865 which was explicitly nostalgic:

O for the life of Robin Hood, to wander an outlaw free
Rather than crawl in the market-place of human slavery:

Linton realised that by the 1850s industrial capitalism and liberal economics were well and truly entrenched, as factory workers filed in out of work on a daily basis, their lives governed by the clock, and at the end of the day receiving a mere pittance for their labour. Furthermore, to Linton the medieval world of Robin Hood represented health liberty, in contrast to the un-free and un-healthful, smoky Victorian city:

O for an hour of Robin Hood, and the brave health of the free,
Out of the noisome smoke to where the earth breathes fragrantly,
Where heaven is seen,
And the smile serene
Of heavenliest liberty.

There was indeed many aspects of the medieval period which were seductive to the Romantics, and this accounts for the ‘cult’ of ‘merrie England’ which persisted throughout the nineteenth century. However, the Romantics, as their name implies, were guilty of romanticising the past. Medieval England was a feudal society. Men weren’t free, and at the risk of sounding cliché, for many people in the medieval period, life was nasty, brutish and short, and Robin Hood, if he existed, would have been a common criminal.

Lords, Ladies, Maids, and Servants...Do we romanticise the past ourselves?
Lords, Ladies, Maids, and Servants…Do we romanticise the past ourselves?

There is a danger of overly romanticising any period of past. As an example think of the way that Julian Fellowes has recently created a “quaint” view of Edwardian life in his series Downton Abbey. He presents Lord Downton as a benevolent aristocrat, who takes care of his servants, and shares in their troubles. The reality, of course, is that the Lords were despised in the Edwardian period by a great many. In fact, the Liberals’ slogan for the 1910 election was “The Lords Must Go”, in reference to the increasingly despised way that the House of Lords blocked reforms which would benefit the common man.

In short, despite what the Romantics thought, the “grass wasn’t greener” in the medieval period.

Addison, J. The Spectator, July 17th, 1711 (No. 119).

Keats, J. Robin Hood: To a Friend (1820).

W. J. Linton An Hour of Robin Hood (1865)

Kelly, G. English Fiction of the Romantic Period, 1789-1830 (London: Longman, 1989).