19th Century

The Life and Work of Victorian Robin Hood Scholar John Mathew Gutch (1776–1861)

By Stephen Basdeo

The modern scholarly study of the Robin Hood legend began with the pioneering work of Joseph Ritson who in 1795 published Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads. Several nineteenth-century novelists, such as Walter Scott, Thomas Love Peacock, and Pierce Egan, wrote Robin Hood stories which were based partly upon Ritson’s book. In fact, when one thinks of the nineteenth-century Robin Hood tradition, it is a tradition largely conceived of through fictional works, rather than—with some exceptions—scholarly articles and books. The next major scholar after Ritson, it seems, was Francis James Child who published The English and Scottish Popular Ballads between 1882 and 1898.

A lytell gest

Gutch’s Robin Hood book. Image from the Rochester Robin Hood project.

This means that the scholar John Mathew Gutch is often overlooked in modern historiography and where he does receive a mention, he is often characterised as a man who, because of his A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode in 1847, attempted to do the same as Ritson had done in 1795—that is, to compile a scholarly collection of Robin Hood texts—but that ultimately Gutch’s collection was less commercially successful than the one Ritson had completed. This paper therefore gives a brief overview of Gutch’s life and works, and discusses his views on the Robin Hood legend. As far as I can ascertain, this will be the first biography of J.M. Gutch since the somewhat meagre offering of but 800 words in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is little more than a list of publications.


An 18th-century edition of Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, which J.M. Gutch bought majority shares in during the early 19th century.

J.M. Gutch was born in Oxford in 1776. His father, the Reverend John Gutch, a medieval scholar in his own right, was the Registrar of the University of Oxford and Chaplain of All Souls College—a position which his father held until 1824.[1] The younger Gutch’s early life followed a pattern which was usual for the sons of the Victorian middle classes: he was educated at Christ’s Hospital, where he forged a friendship with two very famous future literary men, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb. During his school years, he published a few lines of bad poetry in The Gentleman’s Magazine, entitled ‘Magdalena; written at Godstowe, Oxfordshire, the Retreat of Fair Rosamund’.[2]

Gutch did not attend university, however, but was sent by his family to Bristol where he was apprenticed as a law stationer—a stationer company which sells, as the name implies, stationary specifically for members of the legal profession. However, he swiftly moved into the newspaper business and purchased a proprietary share in Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal in the early 1800s. Through the columns that he wrote on commerce and local politics under the pseudonym of ‘Cosmo’, soon became one of the most popular journalists in the city. Much of his popularity, it is said by his biographer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, is due to the fact that it was Gutch who apparently ‘invented’ the concept of the leading newspaper article—the lead usually being his own articles.[3]


A copy of a volume of the Gentleman’s Magazine to which Gutch contributed many articles.

A series of other less successful ventures followed after a brief move to the capital—an associate named Mr Alexander convinced Gutch to establish a new newspaper, The London Morning Journal, in which Gutch eventually invested a significant part of his fortune from Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal. However, The London Morning Journal soon ran into trouble because one of its authors wrote a libellous article calling the Duke of Wellington and Lord Lyndhurst ‘traitors’ due to their promotion of Catholic relief.[4] Gutch was an Anglican, very anti-Catholic, and despised atheists. He strongly objected to the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Bill in 1829 and one column for Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, he accused all Irish Catholics of being guilty of treason solely because of their religion.[5] As we shall see later, part of the reason that he felt the need to compile his own Robin Hood books was because he was annoyed at the anti-clerical and anti-Christian tone of Ritson’s biography of Robin Hood.[6]


The Duke of Wellington — Gutch found himself at the centre of a libel case after accusing the Duke of Treason

Gutch was also a conservative and highly patriotic. He was ‘disgusted’ with the fact that British generals and army officials, having spent a long time in France, had allowed some French words to seep into their dispatches. He concluded in a letter to The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1814 that, because the French had, during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, committed ‘unparalleled atrocities’, then it was the duty of all patriotic Englishmen to keep their letters pure of ‘French manners and principles’.[7] The overt anti-French Revolutionary sentiments likewise place Gutch as the direct antithesis of everything that Ritson had stood for—in the latter’s biography of Robin Hood, after all, the outlaw’s actions are infused with pro-French radical political sentiments. Gutch’s peculiarly English patriotism would have an effect on his scholarship, for over the course of his life, Gutch amassed a large collection of rare books for his personal library. The principal subjects were old English ballads and tales, chapbooks, broadside ballads, as well as early editions of Shakespeare, the unpublished works of Thomas Chatterton, and even a Bible once owned by King James I, and of course many Robin Hood books, to name just a few of the items in his collection.[8] These were all English; it is striking, in fact, that at his death, when his library was catalogued, there were virtually no works by foreign authors, in contrast to his forebear Ritson, who devoured several foreign-language works and was one of London’s principal dealers in early modern Italian books.

While Gutch was working as a journalist, he was also editing, like the eighteenth-century antiquaries who had come before him, ‘ancient’ English poems and ballads and publishing them as books. The first of these was The Poems of George Wither, published in 1820 in three volumes—a further fourth volume containing a biography of the ‘Spenserian’ Wither was planned but never materialised. Gutch’s first major work, however, was his two volume collection of Robin Hood ballads: A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, published in 1847. There was a nationalist element to Gutch’s desire to publish a new book of Robin Hood’s life and ballads—his explicit purpose was, as he says, ‘an attempt to throw some new light on the life and actions of this celebrated hero of the English serfs, the poor and obscure of the Anglo-Saxon race’.[9] Gutch had a sneering attitude towards Ritson and doubted the latter’s credentials as a gentleman—in the full title of his Robin Hood ballad anthology Gutch definitely wanted to establish his superiority over the intrepid eighteenth-century radical Ritson:

A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode with Other Ancient and Modern Ballads and Songs Relating to this Celebrated Yeoman to Which is Prefixed His History and Character Grounded Upon Other Documents than those Made Use of by His Former Biographer “Mister” Ritson.

The use of scare quotes around ‘mister’ was telling—he was even doubting Ritson’s claims to being a gentleman. The first thing which Gutch wanted to do was to ‘controvert the noble lineage which Mr Ritson … ascribed to [Robin Hood].’[10] It is true that Ritson claimed Robin Hood was of noble birth, but had Gutch read Ritson’s Robin Hood properly, he would have seen that Ritson only gave hesitant acceptance to this theory. Ritson says that it was ‘in the latter part of his life, at least’ that Robin Hood had pretension to an earldom.[11] Had Gutch truly been a better historian than Ritson, of course, he would have realised that the aforementioned Anglo-Saxon connection to Robin Hood had absolutely nothing to do with the pre-nineteenth-century tradition—the idea that Robin Hood was a Saxon first appeared, of course, in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819).

Although Gutch claimed to give readers a new biography of Robin Hood, most of the preface in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode was concerned with pointing out some of Ritson’s errors, rather than writing a completely new biography. Most of the first volume after the ‘biography’ of Robin Hood was simply concerned with miscellaneous essays on Morris Dancing, as well as extracts of various articles on Robin Hood from various Victorian literary magazines. There are also two versions of the poem ‘A Gest of Robyn Hode’ (1495) reprinted here—one is in the ‘original’ Middle English, printed in Gothic typeface, and a modern English translation. This latter was composed by Gutch’s friend, the Rev. John Eagles, ‘an old and highly valued friend’ who thought that the early Robin Hood poem ‘ought not to remain in its antiquated form and language’.[12] However, Gutch’s second volume was impressive in its scope for it included all of the medieval and early modern poems of Robin Hood, including the earliest ‘Robin Hood and the Monk’—Gutch called this ‘A Tale of Robin Hood’—as well as every single Robin Hood ballad and poem he could find from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Gutch’s Lytell Geste of Robin Hood received favourable reviews and, judging by its citations later in the century, appears that he was looked upon as the authority on Robin Hood.

Gutch was a member of the British Archaeological Association, and his interests encompassed more than just Robin Hood studies. His activities with the B.A.A. mirror the practices of modern academics. Gutch read several papers at conferences held by this society, and the first paper he read at such a conference appears to have been on 14 August 1848. It was here that he delivered a paper on the history of the Clothier’s Company of Worcester in the Middle Ages.[13] It was clear that Gutch’s first interest was Robin Hood, however, and shortly after the publication of his own book, there was a new development in the tradition: Joseph Hunter’s discovery of a man named Robin Hood in the fourteenth century whose life appeared to match that of outlaw’s as it appeared in the ‘Gest of Robyn Hode’. Hunter’s findings appeared in a pamphlet titled The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England, Robin Hood his Period etc. Investigated and Perhaps Ascertained, published in 1852. At the news of the discovery of the real Robin Hood, Gutch, as the most prominent Robin Hood scholar of the age, was asked by various newspapers to comment on the discovery. Gutch was impressed with Hunter’s findings. In this pamphlet, said Gutch,

The Rev. Joseph Hunter … establishes beyond a reasonable doubt that Robin Hood,—“The Great Hero of the Ancient Minstrelsy of England,” was a real personage, and not a mere poetical creation.[14]

He supported Hunter’s thesis on several occasions—there was a large meeting of the B.A.A. members in Nottingham in August 1852, attended by such luminaries as the Duke of Newcastle. The meeting was widely reported in the press, and here Hunter delivered a paper which argued that Robin Hood was indeed a real person. The Times gave a brief synopsis of the paper:

Mr. Gutch then proceeded to read an elaborate and interesting paper on Robin Hood and the ballads, which he had prepared in consequence of the vicinity of the place of their present meeting to Sherwood Forest, which had been hitherto regarded as the habitation of the celebrated English yeoman Robin Hood. The recent singular discovery by the Rev. J. Hunter, in his researches among the ancient records of the Exchequer, justified him (Mr. Gutch) in asserting the veritable existence of Robin Hood and the county of his residence.[15]

This paper may have been similar in substance to an article that Gutch published shortly before the B.A.A. meeting on ‘The Discovery of the Veritable Robin Hood’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine.[16] Interestingly, and much like what happens at the modern International Medieval Congress in Leeds, there appears to have been a panel devoted to Robin Hood matters. Gutch was followed by a Mr Pettigrew, who read out a paper for J.O. Halliwell. Halliwell’s paper, however, made a different argument to Gutch and asserted that Robin Hood was an entirely mythical person: ‘a corruption of Robin in the Wood’. After this, Sir F. Dwarris delivered a paper on the Norman Forest Laws.[17] The whole meeting then finished with an ‘address’, or keynote, on the subject of medieval outlaws.[18]


The clergyman and antiquary Joseph Hunter, who discovered a ‘real’ Robin Hood in 1852.

Gutch published very few scholarly publications after the B.A.A. meeting in 1852. During this time he appears to have moved from London to Worcester, where he and his wife lived with their father-in-law. There were two further books: A Garland of Roses from the Poems of the Late Rev. John Eagles (1857) and Watson Redivivus (1860). In 1861, he also contributed another article on the identity of the ‘real’ Robin Hood to a magazine titled The Reliquary.[19] He was also at this point compiling a history of Worcester’s battlefields for the local history society there but, on 20 September 1861, Gutch passed away. He was survived by his wife and son, and several newspapers and periodicals paid tribute to him at the time of his death, most notably The Gentleman’s Magazine with whom he had had a long-standing association.[20]

[1] ‘Memoir of the Reverend John Gutch’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, September (1831), 201–03.

[2] J.M. Gutch, ‘Magdalena; written at Godstowe, Oxfordshire, the Retreat of Fair Rosamund’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, August (1797), 693.

[3] ‘John Mathew Gutch, Esq.’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, December (1861), 682–86.

[4] ‘J.M. Gutch’, The London Review, 12 October 1861, 463.

[5] ‘To Mr J.M. Gutch’, Bristol Mercury, 12 February 1827, 3.

[6] J.M. Gutch, ‘Preface’, in A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, ed. by J.M. Gutch, 2 vols (London: Longman, 1847), I, p. xxvi.

[7] J.M. Gutch, ‘Letter’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, June (1814), 531–34 (p. 532).

[8] ‘The Library of Mr John Gutch’, The Athenaeum, 3 April 1858, 436.

[9] Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, I, p. iii.

[10] Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, I, p. i.

[11] Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (London: Longman, 1820), p. iv.

[12] Gutch, A Lytell Geste of Robin Hode, I, p. 222.

[13] ‘Antiquarian Researches’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, October (1848), 405.

[14] ‘Literary Notices’, Berrow’s Worcestor Journal, 5 August 1852, 3.

[15] ‘British Archaeological Association’, The Times, 18 August 1852, 6.

[16] J.M. Gutch, ‘The Discovery of the Veritable Robin Hood’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, August 1852, 160–62.

[17] ‘British Archaeological Association’, Caledonian Mercury, 23 August 1852, 5.

[18] ‘British Archaeological Association’, Nottinghamshire Guardian, 19 August 1852, 3. This also gives a fuller account of Gutch’s paper.

[19] J.M. Gutch, ‘The Ballad Hero Robin Hood’, The Reliquary, January (1861), 128–43.

[20] ‘John Mathew Gutch’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, December (1861), 682–86.

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