Ask anyone today what is Robin Hood all about and you will be almost certainly told that he stole from the rich to give to the poor. This is Robin’s main motif, and his most popular attribute. Robin Hood is an example for the modern day clash between the rich and the poor. He is also an example of the tension between those in power (the government for example) and those under their control. Robin Hood is the hero for the ordinary person against the greed and control exacted over them by the powerful.
He is much like Doctor Who – he has the moral and social right on his side but only because he is in conflict with the people in charge – he is a maverick and an outsider. Like the more recent manifestations of Doctor Who, Robin Hood has had his past life taken from him and he is now the creation of his enemies. But he won’t run away and hide, instead he fights for what he believes in, and that fight is very much the fight of the ordinary person. We can therefore understand him and his plight, support it and defend his actions even when they are close to crossing the line. Robin steals – this is bad – but he does so for a better, higher purpose, and only against those who – we would like to believe – deserve to be stolen from, because they themselves have robbed us; not literally of course, but certainly figuratively; through their careful and ruthless (we believe) use of capitalist systems and rules and laws. Doctor Who similarly sides with the oppressed and needy over those in power.
When did Robin Hood start giving to the poor?
It is interesting then that this whole aspect of Robin Hood was only really developed in the nineteenth century, quite late in the history of the legend. The idea was there in a latent form in the very earliest tales. Robin refused to steal from the impoverished Knight, he also returned his money to him when he managed to take it from the Sheriff. But it was not explicit nor even the key message.
One man in particular can be credited with drawing out this moral aspect to Robin’s tales. That man is Joseph Ritson (1752-1803), a Jacobin from Stockton-on-Tees, who collected together all of the remaining extent materials relating to the Robin Hood legend and published them in two volumes in 1795. Ritson acknowledged that much of the source material was of later origin than he had expected and that he had found much less than he had hoped. Nonetheless, he felt confident that he could form a fragile ‘life’ story of Robin Hood that was accurate to history. Ritson admitted that Robin was a robber and a thief, but that he had been taken in to the hearts of the people as he was an ‘honourable thief’ and rouge. He further argued that
in these exertions of power, he [Robin Hood] took away the goods of rich men only; never killing any person, unless he was attacked or resisted: that he would not suffer a woman to be maltreated; nor ever took any thing from the poor, but charitably fed them with the wealth he drew from the abbots.
– Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood, p. ix.
Ritson’s interest in Robin Hood stemmed from his political opinions and fitted into the context of his times. In 1791 Ritson had visited Paris, and returned with an enthusiasm for the republican form of government that the French had recently established after their revolution. Ritson believed that the French had freed themselves from the corrupt institutions of the past, and wished England would do the same. Ritson’s Robin Hood encapsulated that spirit.
Walter Scott also followed a similar line in his Ivanhoe (published in 1820), giving Robin Hood and his men key roles in the story. Scott refers to Robin as Locksley basing this on an anonymous manuscript from the seventeenth-century, but unlike Ritson ignores the sixteenth-century claim that Robin was born a nobleman. Between Ritson and Scott the modern disjointed characteristics of Robin Hood emerges. Like Ritson, Scott described Robin and his men as merry and cheery and also, as decent and patriotic.
In chapter 32 of Ivanhoe, Locksley and his men rest after besieging the Castle of Torquilstone and rescued the Lady Rowena. They have amassed a seizable bounty after their success, but due to their customs ‘no one ventured to appropriate any part of the booty, which was brought into one common mass, to be at the disposal of their leader’. Locksley distributes the wealth fairly amongst all those who took part in the siege. When the Lady Rowena approaches Locksley to offer thanks, Scott has her affirm his tendency to defend the oppressed:
As Rowena bent her steed towards Locksley’s seat, that bold yeoman, with all his followers, rose to receive her, as if by a general instinct of courtesy. The blood rose to her cheeks, as, courteously waving her hand, and bending so low that her beautiful and loose tresses were for an instant mixed with the flowing mane of her palfrey, she expressed in few but apt words her obligations and her gratitude to Locksley and her other deliverers.—”God bless you, brave men,” she concluded, “God and Our Lady bless you and requite you for gallantly perilling yourselves in the cause of the oppressed!—If any of you should hunger, remember Rowena has food—if you should thirst, she has many a butt of wine and brown ale—and if the Normans drive ye from these walks, Rowena has forests of her own, where her gallant deliverers may range at full freedom, and never ranger ask whose arrow hath struck down the deer.”
“Thanks, gentle lady,” said Locksley; “thanks from my company and myself. But, to have saved you requites itself. We who walk the greenwood do many a wild deed, and the Lady Rowena’s deliverance may be received as an atonement.”
– Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820), ch. 32.
Ritson, Scott and other literary writers of the nineteenth century were less bothered with authenticity or historical accuracy, and more interested in creating atmosphere. This meant that the myths and legends of Robin Hood solidified and took on their modern appropriations at this time. Robin as provider to the poor, and enemy of the rich fitted into discourses about wealth, power, and authority that was prevalent in the nineteenth-century, and remains so (perhaps even more so) today. In this sense Doctor Who is a modern day Robin Hood, but only in so-far as Robin Hood himself was characterised 200 years ago. In that sense Robin Hood himself is equally a modern invention.
Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: a collection of all the ancient poems, songs, and ballads now extant related to that celebrated English outlaw (2 vols., 1795).
Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (1820) Online Here