Any researcher or historian interested in the Robin Hood legend owes a great debt to Joseph Ritson (1752-1803). He was not the first scholar to collect earlier literary materials on the outlaw, but due to his phenomenal determination and critical enquiry, we have today what has become the classic ‘literary life’ of Robin Hood.
Joseph Ritson was born at Stockton on Tees in the County of Durham on the 2nd October 1752. He was the second of a family of nine children and the second son that survived of Joseph Ritson and his wife Jane Gibson. They were a respected yeoman family that held lands at Hackthorpe and Great Strickland.
Ritson was trained in conveyancing under a Mr Ralph Bradley, a distinguished conveyancer, and it was probably his suggestion that Ritson moved away from Stockton, to put his abilities to the test. In 1775 Ritson settled in London and was engaged to manage the conveyancing department of Masterman and Lloyds in Grays Inn at a salary of £150 a year. On the 20th of May 1789 Ritson was called to the bar.
Before he left Stockton he had published ‘Verses Addressed to the Ladies of Stockton’ (1772). His letters reveal a hunger for literary research, away from the monotony of chamber life, and show that at Grey’s Inn he became a reader of the antiquarian manuscripts at the British Museum. In October 1779 he spent many hours examining the literary treasures of the Bodleian Library in Oxford.
In July 1782 he passed a few weeks at Cambridge where he says, ‘I saw a great many curious books and made a great many important discoveries.’
Ritson was always determined to report exactly what he found and was highly critical of those at that time who took license and transposed or changed words in manuscripts to suit themselves. This led to him being given the derisory nick-name ‘the Mister Ritson.’
He was an acrimonious but painstaking in his work, always eager to see the actual manuscript or old book when its contents were of particular interest to him. Ritson made good use of friends and acquaintances who resided near the libraries where his source material lay.
After ‘restless enquires,’ he had published his ‘Observations on the History of English Poetry’, and jocularly remarked that it would ‘turn the world upside down.’ His bold and often rude style of criticism including taunts made him many enemies, but this never seem to cause him any concern and most of his observations and corrections were adopted.
In 1792 Ritson’s ‘Ancient Songs from the time of King Henry the Third to the Revolution’ was published. During his extensive travels he was already collecting historical manuscripts, legendary songs and merriments from provincial printers so it was inevitable he would come into contact with the Robin Hood saga.
Considering the problems with transport and communication during this period, it is remarkable to consider that Ritson managed to gather together thirty three of the major Robin Hood texts. Francis J Child in his English and Scottish Ballads (1882-1898) managed only five more nearly a century later.
Sadly, Ritson was only able to see a fragment of the ballad ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’ or Robin Hood and Little John as he names it. It was inserted by the printer in the appendix of the second edition of his work in 1832.
1795 saw the first publication of Ritson’s “Robin Hood: A Collection Of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, And Ballads, Now Extant Relative To That Celebrated Outlaw: To Which Are Prefixed Historical Anecdotes Of His Life."
The book was dedicated to Sir Walter Scott, a regular correspondent and someone he greatly admired.
Ritson’s long introduction-over a hundred pages-but abbreviated in later editions-opens with a ‘life’ of Robin Hood:
“It will scarcely be expected that one should be able to offer authentic narrative of the life and transaction of this extraordinary personage. The times in which he lived, the mode of life he adopted, and the silence or loss of contemporary writers, are circumstances sufficiently favourable, indeed, to romance, but altogether inimical to historical truth. The reader must, therefore, be contented with such detail, however scanty or imperfect, as a zealous pursuit of the subject enables one to give: and which, though it may fail to satisfy, may possibly serve to amuse.”
This was the first comprehensive collection of references, ballads and opinions on Robin Hood. There was scarcely a reference in literature to the outlaw that he didn’t discover. But Ritson in his eagerness to assemble almost all the work of the earlier antiquaries and ballad mongers failed to discard any bogus material. Therefore we have in ‘the full paraphernalia of scholarship,’ what Professor Holt described as the ‘critical apparatus overwhelmed by the plethora of detail’.
“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, and his true name was Robin Fitzooth, which vulgar pronunction easily corrupted into Robin Hood. He is frequently styled, and commonly reputed to have been Earl of Huntingdon; a title to which in the latter part of his life, at least, he actually appears to have had some sort of pretension.”
On his death:
"At length the infirmities of old age increasing upon him a desirous to be relieved, in a fit of sickness, by being let blood, he applied for that purpose to the prioress of Kirkley’s nunnery in Yorkshire, his relation (women, and particularly religious woman, being in those times somewhat better skilled in surgery than the sex is at present), by whom he was treacherously suffered to bleed to death. This event happened on 18th November 1247, 31st year of King Henry III. If the date assigned to his birth is correct, about the 87th year of his age. He was interred under some trees at a short distance from the house; a stone being placed over his grave, with an inscription to his memory.”
In this one book, Ritson had brought together strands of Robin the yeoman and Robin the nobleman with a mish-mash of details from the unreliable ‘Sloane Life’, chronicle statements, alleged tombs and epitaphs. And although the book was hugely popular and everybody plundered it for ideas, references and narratives, it made very little immediate impact on the tradition.
But it was remarkably the first historical milestone in the long quest for Robin Hood.