I am a bad hand at depicting a hero properly so called, and have an unfortunate propensity for the dubious characters of borderers, highland robbers, and all others of a Robin Hood description.
- Walter Scott.
In the television series Arrow (2012-17), Detective Lance is charged with tracking down a crime-fighting vigilante who dresses in green and kills his enemies using a bow and arrow. Like his forebear, the legendary medieval hero, Robin Hood, Green Arrow is held up as a twenty-first century noble bandit. Like all good bandits, the Green Arrow also in the first few episodes steals from rich criminals and gives to the poor. Upon overhearing two people in the precinct extolling Arrow’s virtues and comparing him to a modern-day Robin Hood, Lance exclaims: ‘People forget that Robin Hood was a criminal’. And this is true today: in modern portrayals of the outlaw legend we rarely see Robin committing any criminal act. Yet as we will see, this was not always the case in preceding centuries, notably in eighteenth-century crime writing. This post examines the influence of eighteenth-century crime writing upon Scott’s portrayal of Robin Hood in his phenomenally successful novel Ivanhoe (1819), which gives a nuanced and complex portrayal of the outlaws’ morality.
When Robin Hood began to make his mark in popular print culture during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, there was often little distinction between him and other contemporary criminals, as a poem entitled The Humours of Mayfair (1760) illustrates:
With hideous face and tuneless note,
The ballad-singer strains his throat;
Roars out the life of Betty Saunders,
With Turpin Dick and Molly Flanders.
Tells many woeful tragic stories,
Recorded of our British worthies.
Forgetting not Bold Robin Hood,
And hardy Scarlet of the Wood.
The same attitude is evident in the many criminal biographies published throughout the period, such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1719) and Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734). These works depict Robin Hood as a typical eighteenth-century idle apprentice who in his early life manifested ‘a licentious, wicked inclination’.
Walter Scott (1771–1832) was a lawyer, scholar, and antiquary. In writing Ivanhoe, he drew upon a range of primary sources. The numerous footnotes inserted throughout the novel reveal a detailed knowledge of the medieval period. He also had a bit of fun in writing the novel: he references several fictional primary sources such as the Wardour Manuscript, named after a character from another Scott novel entitled The Antiquary (1816). Perhaps as a result of his interest in the legal profession, Scott was also a collector of criminal biographies. His personal copy of The Highland Rogue; or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert MacGregor (1723), informed his portrayal of the eponymous brigand in Rob Roy (1818), and the former work is currently on display in the Abbotsford Visitor Centre. Similarly, Scott’s reading of Charles Johnson’s General and True History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724) influenced Scott’s The Pirate (1822). Scott owned over thirty such criminal biographies, including Smith and Johnson’s Highwaymen books.
In all of his works, Scott manifests a particular skill in portraying his characters as complex beings: they defy any neat categorisation as either good or bad. With his fondness for reading criminal biographies, it will come as no surprise that subtle influences of Robin Hood’s portrayal in the genre can be detected in Ivanhoe. One scene which illustrates this is when Wamba is alone with King Richard I. After the king has been speaking about the outlaws in glowing terms, Wamba sneers, ‘those honest fellows balance a good deed with one not quite so laudable’. The king then asks Wamba to elaborate upon his remarks, to which he replies,
The merry men of the forest set off the building of a cottage with the burning of a castle – the thatching of a choir against the robbing of a church – the setting free a poor prisoner against the murder of a proud sheriff; or, to come nearer to our point, the deliverance of a Saxon Franklin against the burning alive of a Norman baron. Gentle thieves they are, in short, and courteous robbers; but it is ever the luckiest to meet with them when they are at their worst.
There are plenty of gentle courteous robbers depicted in the histories of Smith and Johnson. In Johnson’s account of Robin Hood, for example, it is said that:
His ingenuity then suggested the expedient of robbing the rich to supply the wants of the poor. In all his depredations, he never injured a poor man, but, on the contrary, supplied him with money for his present wants.
However, Johnson does not avoid highlighting Robin’s supposed murderous depredations: what arises in his work, as well as in Smith’s, is an account in which Robin Hood is justly excoriated for his crimes, yet simultaneously idealised as the protector of the poor. This contradiction mirrors eighteenth-century contemporaries’ complex and often shifting attitudes towards robbers. Similarly in Ivanhoe, we see a Robin Hood who is held up as a patriotic hero who assists Richard I in regaining his kingdom from the machinations of Prince John and his Norman henchmen. Yet the more unpleasant aspects of the Robin and the outlaws’ actions are criticised.
And the more negative assessment must have stemmed from Scott’s reading of criminal biographies. Scott was acquainted with earlier Robin Hood literature, and he was in regular correspondence with Joseph Ritson, the editor of Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads (1795), and he based his Robin Hood character primarily upon Ritson’s text. As its title suggests, Ritson’s book reproducesa number of Robin Hood stories from the medieval period to the eighteenth century, including the A Gest of Robyn Hode (c. 1450), which had been virtually forgotten about until Ritson “rediscovered” it. All of the ballads in Ritson’s collection give a positive view of Robin Hood, while Ritson’s preface, a brief biographical account of the outlaw, depicts him as an honourable freedom fighter. Thus, combined with the fact that criminal biography inspired some of Scott’s other works, as well as the fact Scott is not afraid to critique Robin Hood on occasion, suggests that we can count eighteenth-century histories of highwaymen among the many sources which contributed to Scott’s masterpiece.
 Walter Scott, ‘Letter to J. B. S. Morritt’, 28 July 1814.
Arrow S1E09 ‘Year’s End’, dir. John Dahl (The CW Television Network, 2012) [DVD]
 Prior to the seventeenth century, Robin Hood had mostly been a figure who existed in oral tradition.
Anon. 'The Humours of May-Fair', The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure 26: 181 (1760), pp. 264-265.
 Alexander Smith, A Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), p. 408. A critical discussion of Robin Hood’s representations in 18th-century criminal biography can be found in the following article: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute: Representations of the Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography’, Law, Crime and History, 6: 2 (2016), pp. 54-70.
 Basdeo, ‘Robin Hood the Brute’, p. 69n.
 Walter Scott, Ivanhoe (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1876), p. 414.
 Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Street Robbers and Pirates (London: T. Tegg, 1839), p. 70.
 For information on some of the medieval the sources which Scott used in writing Ivanhoe see the following: Fiona Robertson, Legitimate Histories: Scott, Gothic, and the Authorities of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994); Jerome Mitchell, Scott, Chaucer, and Medieval Romance: A Study in Sir Walter Scott's Indebtedness to the Literature of the Middle Ages (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1987); Jane Millgate, Walter Scott: The Making of the Novelist (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1987)
Stephen Basdeo is a Lecturer at Richmond American International University. His research interests include Georgian and Victorian medievalism, as well as crime history. For his PhD thesis, he researches literary representations of Robin Hood in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature. He is also the author of two forthcoming popular history books: The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018) and The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (2018). Stephen is also in the final stages of completing his PhD at Leeds Trinity University. Stephen tweets under @sbasdeo1 and maintains his own (highwayman focused) crime history website www.gesteofrobinhood.com.