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Victorian Legacies: Robin Hood: A Romantic Hero [Part I]

In this two-part post, Stephen Basdeo analyses the evolving Romantic and Victorian legacy of the most famous heroic outlaw found in English folklore, Robin Hood.


Fairholt, F. W. ‘Robin and Marian’ [1847]. In Gutch, J. M. A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, Vol. 2 (London: Longman, Brown, and Green, 1847). [Scanned Image].

In 1795 Joseph Ritson (1752-1803) published Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw. The most important part of Ritson’s publication, however, was the ‘Life of Robin Hood’ which he prefixed to the beginning of the collection where Robin Hood was transformed from a common criminal into a freedom fighter, ‘at perpetual war […] with the King of England’.[i] To Ritson, Robin Hood represented freedom from tyranny, and was an almost revolutionary hero. Ritson’s name has not remained as famous as that of his hero, and all but a few medieval scholars probably have not heard of him. His success in transforming Robin Hood into a hero, however, can be judged what came after him. His letters show that he was in contact with a young Walter Scott (1771-1832), [ii] and Scott would go on to publish the novel Ivanhoe in 1820 in which the outlaw Robin of Locksley played a major part. Indeed, the year 1820 seems to have been a good year for the famous outlaw, as John Keats (1795-1821) also published his poem entitled Robin Hood: To a Friend. This post will briefly analyse these two representations of the outlaw hero, and discuss the meanings with which Keats and Scott invested him. Gillian Spraggs in Outlaws and Highwaymen (2001) writes that the period of the 1830s which saw the emergence of the Newgate novel and, in particular, highwayman romances, was partly the result of a yearning on the part of readers and authors alike for natural world ‘in an age of the ever-encroaching city’. [iii] The same can be said for Keats’ Robin Hood – Robin is, after all, the archetypal highwayman – which appears to lament the loss of the ‘grene shawe’.[iv] Keats begins on a negative:

No! those days are gone away,

And their hours are old and gray.

And their minutes buried all

Under the downtrodden pall.[v]

  There is a definite sense of loss in those opening lines. In Keats’ poem, however, he is lamenting, not so much the fact that Robin Hood has died and has been long buried, but the medieval period itself. Keats was living during the industrial revolution, and the first half of the nineteenth century was a period in which there was a battle ‘between traditional values, rights and customs on the one hand, and capitalism, laissez-fair ideology and new middle-class values on the other’. [vi] Consequently, Keats looks back to the time when ‘men knew nor rent nor leases’. [vii] And what would be Robin Hood’s and Marian’s reaction if they were to be resurrected during the 1820s?

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!


Stanfield, C. ‘York Minster’. In Scott, W. Ivanhoe: A Romance (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1820:1871). [Scanned Image].

Robin’s beloved forests were disappearing, sacrificed to the imperial ambitions of Britain’s navy. As the research of Stephen Mosley has pointed out, in Europe, and in Britain in particular, wood was a necessity as ‘forest resources were fundamental to the expansion of Europe’s great imperial powers, as before 1850 most ocean-going ships – the mainstays of world trade and population – were constructed from wood’, [viii] and Europe’s imperial expansion was a contributing factor in a process of deforestations which saw over 180,000 square kilometres of forests cleared in Europe between 1750 and 1849. [ix] The world of Robin Hood was, quite literally, a disappearing world. Moreover, the sweet honey Marian enjoyed free of charge in medieval times was, in Keats’ day, a consumer commodity, sold for a profit. Almost thirty years after Keats was writing, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels would remark on the ‘callous […] cash payment’ which pervaded the modern industrial society [x]. To Keats, the medieval past really was a foreign country which was different, and where people, unchained to the ‘nexus’ of cash payments, indeed did things differently. The medieval period could be lamented by men such as Keats, but it was also idealised by Scott. His vision of an idealised medieval past is established in opening of the novel:

In that pleasant district of merry England which is watered by the river Don, there extended in ancient times a large forest, covering the greater part of the beautiful hills and valleys which lie between Sheffield and the pleasant town of Doncaster […] here also flourished in ancient times those gallant bands of outlaws, whose deeds have been rendered so popular in English song. [xi]

The medieval period was not described here as a ‘barbarous age’, as Ritson called it; [xii] rather, it was an idealised ‘merrie England’. One of the many characters in Ivanhoe is the ‘gallant’ outlaw leader, Robin of Locksley. He is a man who ‘does good, [despite] having unlimited power to do evil, [and] deserves praise not only for the good which he perfoms, but the evil which he forbears’. [xiii] The famous outlaw’s transition into a noble hero, begun by Ritson in 1795, has thus been completed by Scott in 1820. Far from being a localised figure who flourished in only in the forests South Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, Locksley played a part in national history. He meets Richard I, he lays siege to the castle of Torquilstone and rescues Ivanhoe which simultaneously scuppers the machinations of “bad” Prince John to wrest the crown from Richard I. It is, furthermore, Locksley who urges Richard I to stop feasting in the forest and turn his attention to the condition of England. [xiv] The actions of one individual of fairly low-born status, in this case Locksley, resonate through time. Simeone explains that Scott, ‘intended to show that from the beginning of national history, ordinary men had an important part 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’. [xv] Everyone in Scott’s idealised ‘merrie England’ had their part to play.


Stanfield, C. ‘Conisbrough Castle’. In Scott, W. Ivanhoe: A Romance (Edinburgh: Adam and Chaarles Black, 1820: 1871). [Scanned Image].

Scott was not critical of the social makeup of medieval England. In the novel Scott illustrates that medieval England had its problems, but those problems only occurred when there was a breakdown of feudal relationships, when people reneged on their oaths to their superiors. Locksley in Ivanhoe is far more of a freedom fighter than he is an outlaw. He champions the rights of the oppressed Saxon barons against their oppressive Norman overlords. It is for this reason that Scott did not portray Locksley as entirely un-menacing; there is always the threat that Locksley could have resorted to violence, even if he never actually does in the novel. Scott was a Tory, and his social conservatism in Ivanhoe represents ‘a fear towards the common man’ as well as ‘an active concern for the popular welfare’. [xvi] Scott, of course, had lived through the period of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars (1789-1815), an example of what could occur when established social relationships broke down. More recently for Scott, in the year 1819 when he was completing Ivanhoe, there was the tragic Peterloo Massacre, when around 60,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Fields in Manchester to effect parliamentary change, and troops were sent in to suppress the meeting, resulting in 15 deaths. [xvii] Despite Scott’s conservatism however, it is clear that the low-born Franklin Robin of Locksley is as important in national history as the kings, queens, lords and barons, who were the subject of established historiography. Scott’s solution to the disturbances of social order in the nineteenth century are found in the medieval period of Ivanhoe: ‘the serf should be willing to die for his master, the master willing to die for the man he considered his sovereign’. [xviii] By maintaining the loyalty of one class towards the other, there would, by Scott’s reasoning, be social harmony. In conclusion, during the Romantic period the popular outlaw Robin Hood had been transformed from a common criminal into a Romanticised hero. It was a process which was begun by an obscure antiquary, Joseph Ritson, in 1795, who transformed Robin Hood into a bold man of fighting spirit. This vision of a ‘gallant’ outlaw was then taken up by John Keats and Walter Scott. For Keats, Robin Hood and the medieval period was the locus for nostalgia. The days of Robin Hood were over, replaced by erosion of the outlaw’s favourite haunts and the supplanting of customary human relationships with capitalism, the ‘callous cash payment’. For Scott, the medieval days of the greenwood may indeed have passed, but there were lessons to be learnt from the actions of men in the medieval period; all men were important and had a part to play in history; yet for there to be social harmony, each class must maintain its loyalty towards the other. The medieval period thus provided Romantic-era writers with a model of an idealised society, but when those ideal social relationships broke down, there was Robin Hood to stand up and right the wrongs in society.

Part II of this post will be live on Wednesday 18th February 

[i] Ritson, J. ‘Life of Robin Hood’. In Ritson, J. ed. Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw (London: C. Stocking, 1795: 1823), p.VI.

[ii] Harris, N. ‘The Life of Joseph Ritson’. In Harris, N. ed. The Letters of Joseph Ritson, Esq. Vol. 2 (London: William Pickering, 1833), p.LIX.

[iii] Spraggs, G. Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century (London: Pimlico, 2001), p.245.

[iv] Keats, J. ‘Robin Hood: To a Friend’ [1820]. In Wright, P. ed. The Complete Poems of John Keats (London: Wordsworth, 1987), p.231.

[v] Keats, ‘Robin Hood’, p.230.

[vi] Crone, R. Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in Nineteenth-Century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012), p.17.

[vii] Keats, ‘Robin Hood’, p.230.

[viii] Mosley, S. The Environment in World History (London: Routledge, 2010), p.33.

[ix] Mosley, Environment, p.35.

[x] Marx, K. & Engels, F. ‘The Communist Manifesto’ [1848]. In McLellan, D. ed. The Communist Manifesto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p.5.

[xi] Scott, W. Ivanhoe: A Romance (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1820: 1871), p.21.

[xii] Ritson, ‘Life of Robin Hood’, p.XII.

[xiii] Scott, Ivanhoe, p.343.

[xiv] Scott, Ivanhoe, p.427.

[xv] Simeone, W. E. ‘The Robin Hood of Ivanhoe’. The Journal of American Folklore 74: 293 (1961), p.231.

[xvi] Chandler, A. ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 19: 4 (1965), p.324.

[xvii] Marlow, J. The Peterloo Massacre (London: Rapp & Whiting, 1969), p.125.

[xviii] Chandler, ‘Sir Walter Scott and the Medieval Revival’, p.332.

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