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PhD student makes groundbreaking Robin Hood text discovery

Posted by. Stephen Basdeo
Posted on 29 July 2015


Stephen Basdeo

​​Stephen Basdeo is a PhD student at Leeds Trinity University exploring the uses and re-uses of Robin Hood in the 18th and 19th centuries. Last week, Stephen made a discovery that most scholars can only dream of – a previously undiscovered text that has vast implications for the narrative currently held by Robin Hood scholars. The discovery has excited academics at the International Association of Robin Hood Studies, who have asked Stephen to produce an edited edition of the text to go with the launch of their new peer reviewed online journal next Spring. 

Stephen tells us more about his discovery and its significance within the field of Robin Hood research. 

Let me begin by saying that the search for a 'real' Robin Hood is all but over. Scholars these days have simply concluded that due to the paucity of evidence, an historical Robin Hood will never be found. These days, we Robin Hood scholars tend to study the legend as a whole, through a series of canonical texts such as the early ballads, and the work of 18th and 19th century antiquaries such as Joseph Ritson and Francis J. Child. Whilst many of the early Robin Hood texts from the medieval period have been subjected to thorough critical analysis, texts from the early 18th century remain a hitherto under-researched area. Hence my own PhD research at Leeds Trinity University, which examines the later Robin Hood tradition in the 18th century.

As well as Robin Hood, my other research interests lie in the areas of 18th century social and cultural history, in particular the study of political satires. As a result, I read many texts which are often unrelated to Robin Hood. It was when I was reading a work by an early 20th century antiquary, Milton Percival, entitled Political Ballads Illustrating the Administration of Sir Robert Walpole (1916) that I came across a footnote in which he alluded to a Robin Hood ballad called Little John's Answer to Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727). Percival was aware of this text's existence but never actually saw it, and simply concluded that it was a plagiarism of another Robin Hood text called Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727).

I wanted to double-check whether Percival was right in what he was saying, so I decided to track down this forgotten ballad. In what was an extremely lucky coincidence, I discovered that the ballad was being held in an archive that was practically on my doorstep in the Special Collections of the Brotherton Library at the University of Leeds. So, on 22 July 2015, I decided to pay a visit to the archive. And I discovered that Percival was wrong. The content of the ballad is not merely a plagiarism of another Robin Hood text but was wholly different. The ballad had lain unchecked and unanalysed all these years. It is a satire on an 18th-century Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (1676-1745), in which Robin Hood is equated with a "robbing" and corrupt politician, and our favourite outlaw hero really emerges with a tarnished reputation in the text. He is not noble or gallant but simply a 'thief,' a 'vast cunning man,' who 'abuses his good king.'

The discovery of the text is significant because, combined with my other research into 18th century Robin Hood texts, it nuances the narrative of the legend's gentrification which is currently held by Robin Hood scholars. The consensus is that the Robin Hood tradition follows this trajectory: in the medieval period Robin Hood was a violent outlawed yeoman (he does not steal from the rich and give to the poor in the earliest texts). In the 17th century the legend was "gentrified". A playwright came up with the totally unfounded idea that Robin was the outlawed Earl of Huntingdon and was a noble, kind, and generous figure. It is this "safe" image of Robin Hood that was then adapted by Victorian children's books authors, and of course by Hollywood. Yet this clear narrative is interrupted by some of the 18th-century texts which I have discovered. For example, in Alexander Smith's A History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719) Robin is a common cut-throat; 'a murderer,' Smith calls him who was 'of a wicked, licentious inclination.' Other criminal biographies from the period list Robin similarly as having led 'a licentious course of life.' In short, it is clear from my research that in contrast to modern scholarly opinion, Robin Hood was not always viewed as a people's hero, but as a wicked man.

The provisional title of Stephen's PhD is 'Robin Hood: The Uses and Re-Uses of the Outlaw Hero in the 18th and 19th Centuries'.