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Inventing an Outlaw: Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795)

Robin Hood and the Tanner
Robin Hood and the Tanner

Most people have heard of Robin Hood. He is the outlawed Earl of Huntingdon who (supposedly) lived in the 13th century during the reigns of King Richard the Lionheart and King John. He lived in Sherwood Forest with his band of ‘merrie men,’ and they stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Yet this is an image of the outlaw which was largely invented between the years 1795 and 1822, by three writers; Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866). This article would like to direct your attention towards Joseph Ritson’s little-known book Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (1795).

Joseph Ritson
Joseph Ritson

Joseph Ritson was born in Stockton-on-Tees and was a conveyancer by trade. In his spare time, however, he was an antiquary. 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 ballads and 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.

Ritson’s work is significant in the overall construction of the legend because, as his title suggests, he collected together and made accessible in printed form every Robin Hood text he could find ranging from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century. The Middle English ballad A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450), for instance, was first printed in Ritson’s publication. Some of the other ballads which he included in his collection had been printed before, of course, by antiquaries such as Percy in his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and Thomas Evans’ Old Ballads, Historical & Narrative (1784), and in the often reprinted Robin Hood’s Garland chapbooks (‘garlands’ were cheaply printed collections of popular songs). But Ritson’s Robin Hood was the first book to include all of these ancient and modern Robin Hood texts in one place.

Ritson Title Page
Ritson Title Page

The most important part of Ritson’s work, however, was the section entitled ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the collection of ballads. In this Ritson laid down the “facts” of the legend, saying:

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.

Now although Ritson represents Robin being of noble birth as an undisputed fact, the portrayal of Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon was a late 16th-century invention by the playwright, Anthony Munday, who wrote plays called The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1597) and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1598). Despite this, it is this interpretation of Robin’s birth and parentage that has largely remained in modern movie and television adaptations of the legend.

Ritson is also highly critical of Robin’s ‘former biographers’ in his work, and by this he is referring to Alexander Smith’s A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen (1719). Smith portrayed Robin as a cruel and callous brute, as do other criminal biographers such as Capt. Charles Johnson in Lives of the Highwaymen (1734). Robin received kinder treatment in 18th-century plays such as Francis Waldron’s The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood (1783). When Robin is portrayed in a more favourable manner, however, he comes across as quite a passive hero, or ‘gentle master’ as he is called in the play; in all honesty Robin does not really do a great deal in the plot. Thus Robin has varying reputations throughout the 18th century, so Ritson decides to lay down the ‘facts’ about his character, saying:

With respect to [Robin Hood’s] personal character: it is sufficiently evident that he was active, brave, prudent; possessed of uncommon bodyly [sic] strength, and considerable military skill; just, generous, benevolent, faithful, and beloved or revered by his followers and adherents for his excellent and amiable qualities.

Another thing about Ritson is that he is a bit of an armchair republican/revolutionary. His letters from the 1790s are full of praise for the French Revolution. And so Ritson fashions Robin Hood into an almost quasi-revolutionary leader:

In these forests, and with [his] 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.

So Robin is transformed by Ritson into an active hero; he is just, generous, benevolent, and everything that a modern audience would expect of Robin Hood in a movie or television show.

It would be wrong, of course, to give Ritson all the credit for having ‘invented’ the modern image of Robin Hood. The legend was modified still further by Romantic-era authors such as Walter Scott in Ivanhoe (1819). Scott’s character, Robin of Locksley (although not an Earl in the novel), is represented as a true-born Saxon Englishman, the saviour of the nation. In fact, in Ivanhoe Locksley is rarely seen actually robbing anybody, for he has greater concerns. He has to help King Richard win back his throne from ‘bad’ Prince John. And it is in Thomas Love Peacock in Maid Marian (1822) that Robin’s status as a dispossessed earl-cum-social bandit who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. It is Ritson, however, that provided the core text for both Scott and Peacock, and therefore Ritson can justifiably be claimed as the man who invented the modern image of Robin Hood that audiences are familiar with today.


Further Reading:

James C. Holt, Robin Hood (London: Thames & Hudson, 1982).

Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).

Joseph Ritson, 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).

About Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a PhD candidate at Leeds Trinity University. His thesis examines 18th- and 19th-century Robin Hood texts. His other research interests include the history of crime, in particular the offences of outlawry and highway robbery, as well as 18th- and 19th-century print culture.

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