18th century

Walter Scott’s Influence Upon 19th-Century Medieval Scholarship

Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795) is one of the most important works in the entire history of the legend. But even more important, arguably, is Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), which is one of the major novels of the nineteenth century. The novel tells the story of how the conquered Anglo-Saxons and their conquerors, the Normans, came together in the 1190s and formed the English nation. One of the major characters in the novel is an Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter named Robin of Locksley, or as you may know him, Robin Hood. In the novel Locksley embodies the free and generous spirit of Old England. But that is only fiction; there is nothing in historical scholarship to suggest that Robin Hood was a Saxon freedom fighter, or that the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans were in conflict with each other after 1066, much less by the 1190s when Ivanhoe is set. Here I will examine how Scott’s fictional interpretation of the Middle Ages, in particular the notion that Robin Hood was a Saxon yeoman, influenced historical scholarship in the early-to-mid nineteenth century.

Ivanhoe Frontispiece 1830

Frontispiece to Ivanhoe (1830 edition)

In 1819 when Ivanhoe was published, British society was divided. The immediate post-Napoleonic War years had brought economic depression, unemployment, rising crime, and popular political agitation for parliamentary reform. The novel itself was written in the run-up to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester where the local militia was unleashed on to a crowd of 80,000 peaceful protesters who had gathered together to campaign for political reform, killing 15 people and injuring 700 more. Scott’s purpose in writing Ivanhoe was to create a sense of shared history for his readers. It was a message for people living in the early nineteenth century which read that society did not have to be divided if everyone worked together. This is why Scott begins his novel by showing that society was racially divided:

A circumstance which greatly tended to enhance the tyranny of the nobility, and the sufferings of the inferior classes, arose from the consequences of the Conquest by Duke William of Normandy. Four generations had not sufficed to blend the hostile blood of the Normans and Anglo-Saxons, or to unite, by common language and mutual interests, two hostile races, one of which still felt the elation of triumph, while the other groaned under all the consequences of defeat. The power had been completely placed in the hands of the Norman nobility, by the event of the battle of Hastings, and it had been used, as our histories assure us, with no moderate hand. [1]

The eponymous character, Ivanhoe, symbolises the best of both worlds. He respects his Saxon lineage, but accepts the fact that the best future for the Anglo-Saxons will come about if the acrimony between the Saxons and the Normans is laid aside and they work together. This eventually happens in the novel, as gradually the Norman King, Richard I, works with the outlawed Saxon yeoman, Robin Hood, and the Saxon Franklin, Cedric, to reclaim his lands from the machinations of Richard’s brother, Prince John. In effect, Scott is telling readers that society does not have to be divided; everyone can and should work together; the nation came together in the past and the English can do so again. 

It is fairly undisputed that, in the whole of the later Robin Hood tradition, Walter Scott’s name looms large. When the second edition of Joseph Ritson’s 1795 publication Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads was published in 1820, it was dedicated ‘To His Grace, Walter Francis Montagu Douglas Scott’. [2] The preface to this second edition makes a further reference to Scott, saying that ‘this little volume will prove peculiarly acceptable at the moment, in consequence of the hero, and his merry companions, having been recently portrayed in the most lively colours by the masterly hand of the author of Ivanhoe’. [3] By 1820 the original 1795 edition of Ritson’s work had become ‘exceedingly scarce and expensive’. [4] In effect it is Scott who rejuvenated historical interest in the old ballads of Robin Hood, for Ivanhoe initiated a reprinting of Ritson’s work, which was in reality an obscure little two-volume work for serious antiquaries.


Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Novels which were published later in the nineteenth century also utilise the Saxon versus Norman theme. All of these novels include an historical note as to where the authors obtained the sources for their stories, thereby trying to assert their credentials as serious novelists, no doubt. The preface to Pierce Egan the Younger’s penny serial Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, published in weekly numbers between 1838 and 1840, with a single volume edition appearing later, states in its preface that:

[Robin Hood] was the last Saxon who made a positive stand against the dominancy of the Normans […] in fact, his predatory attacks upon them were but the national efforts of one who endeavoured to remove the proud foot of a conqueror from the neck of his countrymen […] and must have been a source of constant alarm and harass to the Normans within his three counties, as well as of much uneasiness to the Governments under which he lived. [5]

The French author Alexandre Dumas in his novel The Prince of Thieves (1873), similarly states in his preface that ‘Robin Hood was the last Saxon who tried to seriously resist the Norman rule’. [6]

Not long after Egan was writing, John Mathew Gutch published another collection entitled A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode in 1847. This collection was published as an ‘attempt to throw some new light on the life and actions of this celebrated hero of English serfs, the poor and obscure of the Anglo-Saxon race’. [7] It was not only British historians, however, who believed that Robin was a Saxon hero. Gutch quotes at length from the French historian Augustin Thierry. In Thierry’s History of the Norman Conquest (1825), in a passage which is obviously inspired by Scott (of whom he was a fan), he wrote how:

The forest of Sherwood was at that time [the 1190s] a terror to the Normans; it was the last remnant of the bands of armed Saxons, who, still denying the conquest, voluntarily persisted in living out of the law of the descendants of foreigners […] About that time that this heroic prince [Richard I], the pride of the Norman barons, visited the forest of Sherwood, there dwelt under the shade of that celebrated wood a man who was the hero of the Anglo-Saxon race […] the famous brigand Robin Hood. [8]

Linking Robin Hood with the Saxons even more explicitly, Thierry goes on to state that:

It can hardly be doubted that Robert, or more vulgarly, Robin Hood, was of Saxon birth […] Hood is a Saxon name. [9]

In conclusion, it is best to reiterate the point that by the 1190s, at least, there was no enmity between the Normans and Saxons in Britain. Eighteenth-century historians make no reference to the Saxons in connection with Robin Hood. The Saxons appear nowhere, for instance, in any of the criminal biographies of the early period, and neither are they referenced in Ritson’s afore-mentioned collection of Robin Hood ballads in 1795. It is clear, then, that historians such as Gutch and Thierry have taken Scott’s interpretation of the middle ages and applied it to their own research. This speaks to Scott’s power as a novelist. When people were reading Ivanhoe in 1819, they assumed that they were getting a relatively true-to-life depiction of what life was like during the Middle Ages. The novel is littered with footnotes of various kinds directing the reader, should he like to know more upon a subject, to various manuscripts held within the Bodleian Library, or Cambridge University’s Library. Even the framing narrative which Scott deploys in Ivanhoe, his ‘Dedicatory Epistle’, is written as a quite believable debate between two antiquaries, Sir Lawrence Templeton and Dr. Dryasdust. Thus it is clear that Scott had an enduring influence, not only upon nineteenth-century fiction, but upon historical scholarship in the period also.


[1] Walter Scott, Ivanhoe: A Romance (3 Vols. Edinburgh: Bannatyne, 1819 repr. Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1871), 3.
[2] Anon. ‘Dedication’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795 repr. 1 Vol. London: Longman, 1820), v.
[3] Anon. ‘Preface’ in Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw Ed. Joseph Ritson (2 Vols. London: T. Egerton, 1795 repr. 1 Vol. London: Longman, 1820), vii.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pierce Egan, Robin Hood and Little John; or, The Merry Men of Sherwood Forest (London: W. S. Johnson, 1840), i.
[6] Alexandre Dumas, The Prince of Thieves Trans. Alfred Mallinson (Paris: M. Levy, 1873 repr. London: Methuen, 1890), 1.
[7] John Mathew Gutch, ‘Preface’ in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode with other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman Ed. John Mathew Gutch (2 Vols. London: Longman, 1847), 1: iii.
[8] Augustin Thierry, ‘History of the Norman Conquest’, cited in Gutch (ed.) A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, 1: 101.
[9] Ibid.

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