Remarks on Robin Hood by Robert Blatchford | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

I have written a few posts on some of the less well-known Robin Hood scholars from the Victorian era, such as J.M. Gutch and Allan Cunningham. Today we turn to another writer: Robert Blatchford (1851–1943).

Students of the history of socialism in Victorian and Edwardian Britain are likely, at some point, to have come across Blatchford’s. Young Robert’s parents were John Glanville Blatchford, a travelling comedian and the actress Georgina Louisa Corri. The father died when Blatchford was two years old, after which his mother took him all around the country while pursuing her acting career, which she did until 1863. After this time the family settled in Halifax, West Yorkshire. After a brief spell in the army between 1874 and 1877, Blatchford turned to a career in journalism. Based in Manchester, by 1890 he became heavily involved in the activities of the Independent Labour Party (the forerunner of today’s Labour Party). Already favourably disposed to liberal causes from having read the works of Charles Dickens as a youth, by 1893 he declared himself a socialist.

But Blatchford was certainly a different kind of socialist. He was a patriot. His socialism was not, he emphatically declared, inspired by Karl Marx but from a “native” English tradition stretching all the way back to John Ball. Blatchford told the Fortnightly Review in 1907 that

“Dr. Cozier is mistaken if he thinks I took my Socialism from Marx, or that it depends upon the Marxian theory of value. I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H. M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; it is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any theory of ‘economic justice’ but upon humanity and common sense.”

At the time of the Boer War, in the socialist newspaper which he founded and edited titled The Clarion, Blatchford saw no conflict between wholeheartedly supporting British troops while also adhering to an internationalist ideology:

England’s enemies are my enemies. I am an Englishman. That is the point I want to make clear. I am not a jingo, I am opposed to war. I do not approve of this present war [the Boer War]. But I cannot go with those Socialists whose sympathies are with the enemy. My whole heart is with the British troops … I am for peace and international brotherhood. But when England is at war I’m English.[1]

At another point he even went so far as to say

I am ready to sacrifice socialism for the sake of England, but never to sacrifice England for the sake of socialism.[2]

We must not, however, make the mistake of thinking he was in any way a nationalist and socialist, or racist—in fact, he was a very prominent opponent of social Darwinism and eugenics. He simply loved England.

As well as editing a newspaper Blatchford also wrote many books. His most famous was Merrie England (1893)—the title obviously drawing inspiration from the medieval era—which was a collection of essays on socialist issues. This sold over 2 million copies worldwide and The Manchester Guardian declared that

For every British convert to socialism made by [Marx’s] Das Kapital there were a hundred made by Merrie England.[3]

Blatchford also wrote several minor novels as well as literary criticism, and it is to his literary criticism we now turn to examine his remarks on “Bold Robin Hood” which appeared in A Book About Books (1903). Blatchford’s love of all things English evidently coloured his remarks on the English outlaw.

Blatchford focused on the early poems: Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and the Potter, A Gest of Robyn Hode, and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne. His main source of information on Robin Hood came from reading Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795) which enjoyed several reprints throughout the nineteenth century. Yet unlike Ritson, and at a time when amateur historians and folklorists were attempting to discover the “real” Robin Hood by scouring archives—or when folklorists were promoting bizarre theories about Robin being the manifestation of a Teutonic forest spirit—Blatchford did not care a fig for whether Robin Hood was real or not or his “mythic” statue. What Blatchford was impressed by in those early tales, rather, was the heroic spirit of Robin Hood who was kind to the poor:

Whether the Robin Hood traditions are wholly fact or fiction is a matter of little moment … I prefer to take him as I find him, and I find him, according to the best traditions, a most picturesque figure moving amid noble scenery, and doing deeds of gallantry and kindness. There were so few men in his day who spoke words of ruth to the poor, who were superior to base temptations … so we will hold fast to Robin Hood, and his merry men, and his Maid Marion, and his bravery and mercy.[4]

In the Robin Hood poems could be found the best of England and the English people. Such remarks on the “noble spirit” of Robin Hood follow in the tradition of criticism that stretches back to Joseph Ritson, Walter Scott, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle likewise cared not whether Robin was real or not but declared in Past and Present (1843) that

The great Iliad in Greece, and the small Robin Hood’s Garland in England, are each, as I understand, the well-edited ‘Select Beauties’ of an immeasurable waste imbroglio of Heroic Ballads in their respective centuries and countries. Think what strumming of the seven-stringed heroic lyre, torturing of the less heroic fiddle-catgut, in Hellenic Kings’ Courts, and English wayside Public Houses; and beating of the studious Poetic brain, and gasping here too in the semi-articulate windpipe of Poetic men, before the Wrath of a Divine Achilles, the Prowess of a Will Scarlet or Wakefield Pindar, could be adequately sung! Honour to you, ye nameless great and greatest ones, ye long-forgotten brave![5]

Similarly, two of Blatchford’s fellow members of the Socialist League, E. Belfort Bax and the brilliant artist William Morris, also praised the “spirit of resistance” to unjust authority in Socialism from the Root Up:

In England what may be called the chronic rebellion of the Foresters … produced such an impression on the minds of the people that it has given birth to the ballad epic known by the name of its mythical hero, Robin Hood. Resistance to authority and contempt of the ‘Rights of Property’ are the leading ideas in this rough but noble poetry.[6]

Interestingly, some of Blatchford’s arguments on the early poems anticipated those of modern scholars who see echoes of Arthurian romance in poems such as the Gest. As Blatchford explains:

Robin Hood is a poor man’s King Arthur, and Little John, Will Scarlett, and Allin-a-Dale are his Launcelot, his Gawaine, and his Tristan. After their fashion, these men went forth errantly to succour the weak, rescue the oppressed, and do honour to the fair. In their history is enshrined the chivalry of the peasantry of England.[7]

Unfortunately, Blatchford tells us, no one in the English nation can never again write such epics as those early poems. Society was too sophisticated. There had been attempts to write Robin Hood and make him a hero for Blatchford’s “modern” age, but these were all in vain. Instead if one wants to discover the real Robin Hood—that is, to discover the tough, hardy spirit of Old England—one must turn to the old poems.

[1] Stephen Basdeo, Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2020), p. 178.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Laurence Thompson, Robert Blatchford: Portrait of an Englishman (London: Victor Gollancz, 1951), p. 151.

[4] Robert Blatchford, A Book About Books (London, 1903), p. 202.

[5] Thomas Carlyle [online], Past and Present, accessed 18 August 2020. Available at: http://www.gutenberg.org.

[6] E. Belfort Bax and William Morris, Socialism from the Root Up, cited in Stephen Basdeo, Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson—Gentleman, Scholar, Revolutionary (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021), p. 169 [FORTHCOMING].

[7] Blatchford, p. 204.

Categories: History