Interviews in Sherwood

Stephen Basdeo

Interview conducted and transcribed
by Allen W. Wright


Stephen Basdeo grew up in Leeds, Yorkshire and he obtained his PhD in December 2017. He was a lecturer on the Richmond American International University’s Leeds campus.

He has been published in a variety of academic publications on Victorian crime literature, Robin Hood and other topics. He's also had three popular history books published by Pen and Sword: The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018), The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues, and Murderers (2018) and The Life and Legend of an Outlaw: Robin Hood (2019).

In July 2020, Heroes and Villains of the British Empire: Their Lives and Legends was also published by Pen and Sword.

With Mark Truesdale, Stephen Basdeo is editing and introducing an edition of the previously unpublished late 18th century Robert Southey’s Harold; or, The Castle of Morford: The First Robin Hood Novel. That book will be released by Routledge, as will a forthcoming book on the novels of Pierce Egan the Younger.

This interview was conducted by email in July 2019 with an update in July 2020.

Finding Robin Hood

AWW:   What was your introduction to the Robin Hood legend? Do you have any childhood favourites?

SB:        I expect, like most people of my generation, I grew up with the Disney cartoon version of Robin Hood. Interestingly, I don’t remember being that fond of it—certainly not to the extent that some people I know recall. There was also the famous Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves movie which came out when I was young and I did enjoy it, but I never clamoured my parents to buy me it on home video, so I guess—if that’s a measure of my fondness for something in the VHS age—maybe that did not captivate me massively either.

            Where I did really get into Robin Hood was the 2006 series with Jonas Armstrong, which I understand a lot of people dislike for its sub-par storytelling but it was fun, had (what I thought at the time) was relatively good acting, and certainly some good BBC. It was also that series which spurred me to buy a copy of Mike Dixon-Kennedy’s Robin Hood Handbook, which I still have, defaced with notes and dog-eared pages.

            So, childhood ‘favourites’? Very few and it wasn’t until later I really began to like Robin Hood.

AWW:   What led you to Robin Hood scholarship?

SB:        My route into Robin Hood scholarship was through crime history. I completed my MA thesis under the supervision of Dr Heather Shore (Leeds Beckett University), one of the UK’s leading crime historians, on portrayals of eighteenth-century highwaymen in contemporary newspapers and periodicals. How a society views its criminals can tell us a lot about its people; highwaymen were, for the most part, brutes, yet the people loved them and books and novels featuring them were best-sellers. Robbery and property crime more generally tend to flourish in societies which are deeply unequal, and where the state is unable and/or unwilling to enforce the law. Eighteenth-century highwaymen enthusiasts knew this, so they more willing to overlook the brutality of these men because they were giving the authorities the run-around. Besides, if people ever actually met a highwayman, they usually saw them on the scaffold at a public execution; any threat they posed was about to be neutered and, if they gave a good show at their death, what was not to like?

            Just as my MA thesis was being wrapped up, a call for a fully-funded PhD project on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century medievalism went out at another local university, Leeds Trinity, so I decided to write a proposal on Robin Hood—England’s most famous robber—in Georgian and Victorian printed works which, luckily, was accepted. So robbers led me into Robin Hood scholarship.

Wat Tyler: Outlaws, rebels and the establishment

AWW:    Although I believe it was a spin-off of your work on Robin Hood, you first book was on rebel leader Wat Tyler. I enjoyed how -- like Robin Hood's legend -- you depicted how the nature of Tyler's story changed to suit different times. But I sense a bit of a difference from Robin Hood. While Robin's history as a freedom fighter is a post-medieval development, I still think despite the complaints of moralists like Bishop Latimer that even was he was a "full-blooded medieval brigand", audience's sympathies were generally with Robin Hood. However, Tyler was truly vilified for a few hundred years. What do you see as the difference between Tyler and Robin Hood?

SB:       Yes my work on Wat Tyler was most definitely inspired by my work on Robin Hood. Basically, as I began writing in my thesis about William Morris’s references to Robin Hood in A Dream of John Ball (1886), for which he wrote a Robin Hood ballad as well, I was struck by the fact that no one had written a comprehensive overview of Tyler’s reappearances in popular culture. So I decided to take the model of Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (2003) and do the same for Tyler.

            As you say, Tyler was indeed vilified by many writers in the post-medieval period, and it’s not until Thomas Paine and, later, the Chartists in the 1700s and 1800s respectively, come along that his reputation is rehabilitatedin print. Now, you mention audience: it is true that somewriters were hostile to Tyler in the early modern period, but—and I’m in two minds about this—might this suggest that in that period audiences-at-large thought positively of him, or at least not as negatively as the moralists? If you need to keep telling people someone or something is bad it might suggest that people might too readily be inspired by his actions (the large number of riots in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries suggests that the people-at-large hesitated verylittle when it came to rioting themselves, and it was often as a warning against rioting that Tyler’s name was invoked by those friendly to the establishment).

            Tyler’seventual rehabilitation in the 1700s and 1800s by Paine and the Chartists suggests that there was a counter-interpretation all along which eventually won out. Interestingly Tyler’s reputation is rehabilitated after the era of ‘King Mob’, when instances of rioting had largely subsided as a feature of British public life. But those are just thoughts I’ve been throwing around in my head and will take on a more coherent form at some point in time…

            I think the same process happened with Robin Hood: yes, Latimer and other writers were very hostile to the outlaw, but they couldn’t claim the dominant interpretation of Robin Hood’s life and actions for long. Where the difference between Robin Hood and Wat Tyler becomes apparent is that Wat Tyler could never be a hero of the establishment, as Robin Hood becomes when his ‘gentrification’ begins in the sixteenth-century Munday plays. You can make an outlaw a servant of the state; that was not at all unusual in early modern Europe when, with a ‘can’t beat then join ‘em’ attitude, many rulers placed former outlaws and bandits in charge of policing remote areas of their kingdom and gave them a handsome reward for doing so. You cannot gentrify, however, any man who seeks to completely overthrow the existing order—he’ll forever be a pariah to the establishment.

Butchers, Highwaymen and Robin Hood

AWW:    In your book on The Lives & Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues and Murderers, you mentioned how figures like Captain James Hind, Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard were all depicted as being butchers at some point in their career. I thought about the Robin Hood ballad where he assumes a butcher's disguise, but I was surprised to learn in your book Robin Hood: The Life & Legend of an Outlaw that in Alexander Smith's 18th century history of highwaymen that Robin Hood himself was raised as a butcher. What is the reason for this literary connection between being a butcher and a robber?

SB:      I guess I should signal that I’ve recently written a chapter on the connection between highwaymen and butchering in a recent edited collection by our mutual friend, Alex Kaufman (and so fulfil my contractual obligation with Routledge to promote the book in general…), entitled Food and Feast in Modern Outlaw Tales (2018).

            In Alexander Smith’s History of the Highwaymen and Charles Johnson’s Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen—you can see from those titles the tradition in which I was trying to situate my own book—Robin Hood is indeed depicted as a butcher. The first thing to note is that Robin Hood in these books is not a ‘medieval’ figure by any stretch; the accounts are de-historicised and Robin Hood is, to all intents and purposes, an seventeenth/eighteenth-century highwayman.

            In real-life terms, eighteenth-century butchers were, surprisingly, often well-connected with members of the criminal underworld. Meat, and good meat, was an expensive commodity in the eighteenth century. Draconian laws against poaching on private lands, some of which originated in the time of our hero, Robin Hood, were still in place. Added to this were new bylaws (laws established in a particular parish or town which do not require an Act of Parliament) banning poaching from specific places, where the medieval laws had only dealt with the Royal forests and parks for the most part. In spite of this the crime of poaching remained endemic; poachers, of course, needed somewhere to dispose of their stolen meat, so butchers acted like receivers of stolen goods in meat, acquiring stock at a cut price and undercutting their fellow butchers. And the butchers were only too ready to do this; competition in the marketplace, for the medieval butchers’ guilds were largely an irrelevance by this point, led to butchers being more willing to engage in criminal activity. Some butchers decided to cut out middle men and just go poaching themselves, and from there they usually became involved in gangs after which they became wanted men. In short, the meat trade was an easy route into a criminal life (though we mustn’t overplay this all the same, for while many highwaymen were butchers, there were of course a number of respectable butchers who never turned to crime in the eighteenth century, and many other trades are represented in the annals of the highwaymen.

            Yet because butchering is an unpleasant trade, in cultural terms, a number of other fears regarding the alleged brutality of the trade and, by extension, the moral character of butchers at large also developed. John Gay, who wrote The Beggar’s Opera (1728), also wrote a few words which neatly illustrate the public view of butchers:

Butchers, whose hands are dy’d with blood’s foul stain,
And always foremost in the hangman’s train.

            The implication was that, if a person was willing to kill a defenceless animal—and the Georgians recognised that animal cruelty went hand-in-hand with criminality (see Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness)—then a person probably had very few qualms about harming other people. Now, not every highwayman/butcher in Smith’s work was probably in real life a butcher—Smith probably just made up that ‘fact’ for half of them—but the material circumstances of daily life, the people who they came into contact with, and the negative connotations with the trade made butchers a convenient scapegoat for criminality.

Penny Bloods and Penny Dreadfuls

AWW:    I was interested to learn how the penny dreadfuls of Jack Sheppard produced moral outrage in the 19th century. It reminds me of the 1950s moral hysteria against comic books (and rock and roll music). Please elaborate a little on the medium of penny bloods and penny dreadfuls. What became of them?

SB:        Penny bloods and penny dreadfuls are my favourite kinds of Victorian literature. I’ll speak about the former first. These were weekly or monthly serials which provided the working and lower-middle classes with cheap entertainment. Although a lot of the penny bloods were crime stories, like the original Sweeney Todd story, A String of Pearls, this wasn’t uniformly the case. There could also be supernatural gothic tales like Varney the Vampyre; or, The Feast of Blood, as well as medieval stories like Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood and his follow up novels, Wat Tyler, and Adam Bell. They were gory, thrilling, and their weekly serialisation meant that authors kept their readers wanting more.

            The most famous, or infamous, writer in this genre was a personal favourite of mine (and of Stephen Knight’s, who’s just written a book on him): George William MacArthur Reynolds, the man who outsold Dickens author of countless penny bloods, the most famous of which was The Mysteries of London and The Mysteries of the Court of London. There was a radical streak in many penny dreadfuls, which always cast the aristocracy in the role of the ‘baddies’.

            And yes, a lot of controversy surrounded both the novels and the authors also acquired a reputation. The name of G. W. M. Reynolds was ‘a name with which no ladies’ and gentleman’s should be associated’, according to Charles Dickens. Reynolds’s and Pierce Egan the Younger’s novels—the latter who was quite a famous Victorian Robin Hood novelist—were said to be full of ‘lust and murder’ according to the times.

           Of course, moralists denounced the penny bloods but they remained very, very popular with readers. Much of the furore around the ‘bloods’ stemmed from anxiety among the elites that the plebs were not reading ‘wholesome literature’, and it was more worrying because the authors were usually at the radical end of the political spectrum.

           After mid-century, moralists had a whole new genre to complain about: the penny dreadful. Where bloods were for adults, penny dreadfuls, serialised weekly and likewise selling for a penny, catered to the children’s market, and the sector exploded after the passage of the Education Act (1870). There are countless, quite forgettable Robin Hood stories from the late 1860s onwards in various penny dreadfuls, either as standalone magazines (a bit like comics today) or as part of magazines such as the Boys of England, Sons of Britannia, Our Young Folks. Some more respectable publishers tried to recapture the youth market by publishing highly decorative, cloth-bound books for children, as well as ‘wholesome’ magazines like The Boys Own (est. 1879), Boys of the Empire. The magazines became a scapegoat, castigated as the cause of the rise in juvenile delinquency which was the source of a lot of moral panic, and the respectable magazines could never quite eclipse that of the penny dreadfuls. Then a lot of writers criss-crossed between penny dreadfuls and nice magazines and the content in the latter was just as violent as the former genre, although the latter did not have a bad reputation. And reputation counted for a lot, for none of those who complained ever actually read the penny dreadfuls!

Pierce Egan's Robin Hood

AWW:    One popular penny blood was Pierce Egan the Younger's 1838 - 1840 serialized novel Robin Hood and Little John. What is your opinion of Egan's Robin Hood?

SB:        So, of Robin Hood novels, I have two favourites: Scott’s Ivanhoe and Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John. It’s best described as the Game of Thrones of its day: a weekly serial full of suspense, violence, quite graphic violence actually—usually the most violent part of each week’s plot was depicted in a large illustration—sieges, deranged aristocrats, love, death, and several attempted rapes (lord knows what Egan’s mind was like). It was pure melodrama.

            I think because of its sheer length (almost half a million words) very few scholars have read the full novel. I read it in full and I wasn’t disappointed. Thoroughly enjoyable!

           Because few scholars have read it in full, and because post-medieval Robin Hood scholarship has tended to favour the ‘big name’ works like Ivanhoe, then it’s easy to understate his importance. We often think that later penny novelists were copying Scott, but an argument I tentatively made in my thesis is that, yes, they were drawing on Scott but also on the excitement and cliffhanger suspense of Egan’s novel. And of course, it was so popular that Egan’s novel was translated into French—only Scott’s Ivanhoe has matched that. Egan’s text went through at least six editions over the Victorian era, while the much-loved (among scholars, though I find it rather boring, and it is, if we’re honest) Maid Marian by Thomas Love Peacock enjoyed one edition in 1822, was briefly revived in 1830, then not again until 1895 when George Saintsbury published his scholarly editions. Yet puzzlingly it’s Maid Marian that scholars give more precedence too — although I don’t unfortunately have a time machine, I would bet that, if I did have one and went back and asked Victorians which version of Robin Hood they were more familiar with, they would return two answers: Scott’s Ivanhoe and Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood. Peacock doesn’t even innovate in the least. He simply offered us a rehash of ballad stories in prose — Egan was by far superior, he just wrote for a less snobby audience. If you want to get to know the 19th-century Robin Hood, read Egan and Scott.

The Impact of Ivanhoe

AWW:    As I recall, you're a fan of Sir Walter Scott and his novel Ivanhoe. What's your opinion about the impact of Ivanhoe on the Robin Hood legend?

SB:        Scott’s influence on the legend was undeniably huge. I’ve never written this, but I’d say that, in terms of transmission, Ivanhoe is at least as important as the early texts—bear with me on this: the novel appeared at a time when the market for mass-market printed works was truly exploding. Every successive novelist and playwright, and later in the twentieth century, TV and film writers, draw upon Scott in some way: in Robin of Locksley in Ivanhoe, we have a brave and quintessentially English, or Anglo-Saxon, freedom fighter. And it’s also refreshing—I’ve often remarked to Mark Truesdale that it’s those who make significant innovations on the legend who often produce the most long-lasting versions of it. We see this with Munday’s elevation of Robin to the aristocracy—that detail lasted. Anglo-Saxon freedom fighter—that detail lasted. Chronicles which say he stole from the rich and gave to the poor (when the Gest does not)—again, this detail lasted.

            Now, as Robin Hood scholars we all love the Gest, but (and I think this is a discussion which needs to be had among us), in terms of influence it had very little till the late Victorian era and even then it was in dry scholarly works, after it had been “rediscovered” by Ritson. The same goes for Robin Hood and the Monk, “undiscovered” until the nineteenth century. It had been reprinted / ‘rediscovered’ by Joseph Ritson in 1795 in a scholarly work, but only about 200 copies of Ritson’s book were printed (probably less—I’ll have to recheck the footnote in my thesis—but that was actually below the average for a first print run), but the Gest only meaningfully reappears in late nineteenth century stories. There is little hint of it in any of the early films, all of which take their cue from Ivanhoe—Robin Hood being less an outlaw and more a freedom fighter—and I think (I may be wrong and willing to be corrected), that the last time a plot from the Gest made it into a TV show was in Robin of Sherwood.

Robert Southey's Harold

AWW:     You're working with Mark Truesdale on publishing Robert Southey's previously unpublished late 18th century Robin Hood novel. How does Southey's abandoned work anticipate later changes in the Robin Hood legend?

SB:        I “found” Southey’s unpublished work while I was researching Wat Tyler. I love reading footnotes (mainly cos I’m a stickler for sources but they often contain nice little gems of information). An article from Jean Raimond in the 1980s on Southey’s early writings had, in a little footnote, a reference to Bodleian MS Eng Misc. e. 21, which she said was a Robin Hood novel Southey wrote in 1791. I suddenly thought: ooh, this is new! (and commentary on it would be helpful to fulfil part of the ‘originality’ aspect of my PhD thesis!) So I went to the Bodleian in Oxford to have a look—it’s a long novel but enjoyable, and I really wanted it published. So I asked to Mark if he wanted in on the project and it was a very enthusiastic yes from him (too much for one person to do!) and so Routledge are publishing it.

            My theory—and when I first told Mark he seemed to agree—is that, while Southey’s text remained unpublished, he may have discussed his Robin Hood novel with Walter Scott. It’s wholly different to other Robin Hood stories—no sheriff, but the story of a returning crusader named Harold, who, along with Richard I, who has returned to England in disguise, and has to team up with Robin Hood to help Harold recover his lands from the bad Baron Fitzosborne. Pure melodrama! But you can see in that some resonances with Ivanhoe, and in the first draft of Scott’s Ivanhoe, the title character’s name, a returning crusader, was Harold. So, although we probably won’t include this in the introduction as there’s no documentary evidence of the two friends, Scott and Southey, ever writing to each other, they must at least have exchanged ideas.

Future Projects and Favourite Robin Hoods

AWW:   What else are you working on at the moment?

SB:        In the next Journal of William Morris Studies, I have an article coming out on William Morris’s use of Ritson’s Robin Hood in A Dream of John Ball—thus uniting Ritson, Wat Tyler, John Ball, and William Morris all into one, so what’s not to love!

            I’ll be leaving off popular history books for a while because, in this day and age, one must produce at least one academic monograph. So now I’ve just about read all of Pierce Egan’s medievalist novels, I’m planning a monograph, the working title of which will be something along the lines of Radical Medievalism: The Early Fiction of Pierce Egan the Younger. So, still Robin Hood, but also hopefully bringing something ‘new’ to the discussion.

AWW:   What's your favourite version of the Robin Hood legend, and do you have any recent favourites?

SB:        A recent Amazon UK review remarked on my book that ‘Although the author doesn't say, it's clear Ivanhoe is his favourite’. I think I’ve spoken enough about Ivanhoe enough. In order of preference I like:

  1. Scott’s Ivanhoe
  2. Pierce Egan’s Robin Hood
  3. Criminal biographies from the eighteenth century
  4. Russell Crowe Robin Hood

            Obviously, we are friends, so you know my feelings on films in general. I think the legend hit a low point with Prince of Thieves and the parody Men in Tights, just for the sheer stupidity of both the ‘proper’ film and the parody which was parodying what was essentially nothing but a farcical symbol of everything that was wrong with 90s filmmaking—poor acting, poor plots, masked by big set-piece action. What makes POT worse is that it meant Bryan Adams’s warbling 'Everything I do' was stuck at the top spot for a number of weeks and MTV and VH1 played it incessantly. Add to that Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, actually—anyone of my generation who says that is a “classic” and of any quality at all is just looking through at it through a lens of nostalgia, and not seeing it for the run-of-the-mill tacky BBC crap that it was in reality.

            This is why I much prefer novels. No film will ever live up to what I as a Robin Hood fan want them to be, so I use novels to allow the authors to shape but not constrain my imagination: for real good Robin Hood fun, to experience a rollercoaster of emotions and experience exciting battles, read Scott or Egan.

AWW:   Thanks for your answers. Even though I feel like I should make it my life's work to make sure Flynn or Praed bumps Crowe off that list. (grins)

July 2020 Update: Imperial Heroes and Villains

AWW:    Your latest book Heroes and Villains of the British Empire is out this month, What can you tease about this book?

SB:        The book isn't a typical history of the British Empire but a study of how the "heroes" of the empire have been commemorated in popular culture. This includes both real figures, like Lord Roberts of Kandahar, General Gordon, but also criminals like the outlaw Ned Kelly. So the main source material for the book was broadside ballads, novels (the popular kind, although Walter Scott does find his way in due to having written "The Surgeon's Daughter" set in India), as well as penny dreadfuls, and, perhaps topically, statues too.

           It's interesting how, for most people, the real heroes of the empire are now the people who challenged it: William Lyon Mackenzie -- the Canadian Wat Tyler -- Gandhi, Ned Kelly. Those who were once "villains" are now the heroes of the empire story.

AWW:     What else do you have upcoming?

SB:        I have a book on Joseph Ritson coming out titled Discovering Robin Hood: The Life of Joseph Ritson: Gentleman, Scholar, Revolutionary, which is out in March 2021. He's such an interesting figure and had his own eyebrow raising views on imperialism -- disagreed with the American Revolution, was a little bit racist about Indians (one should never meet one's heroes, I guess). And of course, with Mark Truesdale, we are publishing Southey's Harold - the first Robin Hood novel, written in 1791.

            However, my main project is a monograph on G.W.M. Reynolds's Political Ideology. I have two chapters written, but unfortunately no "sexy" title yet, but I'm thinking of G.W.M. Reynolds: Red Republican (Red Republicans were a pre-Marxist, English/Proudhonian/Hegelian socialist movement that flourished in the UK in the 1850s, of which Reynolds was part). However, maybe there's scope for a little bit of a connection between Reynolds and Robin Hood. In his 8 volume novel The Mysteries of the Court of London, one of the highwaymen's main heroes is said to be none other than Robin Hood! And of course, Reynolds was best friends with Pierce Egan. So, although on paper I'm not working on Robin Hood for a good while, he'll still be making an appearance somehow or other...

            But to come back to the Empire, dependent on the outcome of peer-review, I (hopefully, unless reviewer 2 raises their ugly head), have an article on imperialist ideology in the late-Victorian Robin Hood books coming out!

AWW:   Thanks again, Stephen. 

SB:        Pleasure! 

Order Stephen Basdeo Books on Amazon

ROBIN HOOD: THE LIFE & LEGEND OF AN OUTLAW by Stephen Basdeo. This book explores the 800 years of the Robin Hood legend as it changes through time. Pretty much everything is covered here but I think the look at the 17th - 19th centuries is especially strong..
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THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF A REBEL LEADER: WAT TYLER by Stephen Basdeo. This book focuses less on historical Wat Tyler and the 1381 Peasants' Revolt and more on Tyler's literary afterlife, in works of art and political propaganda.
Buy The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler on
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THE LIVES & EXPLOITS OF THE MOST NOTED HIGHWAYMEN, ROGUES AND MURDERERS by Stephen Basdeo. Reviving the old tradition of criminal biography, Stephen Basdeo looks at some of the most notorious British rogues -- including Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Jack Sheppard and more.
Buy The Lives & Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues and Murderers on
Buy The Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Rogues and Murderers on
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HEROES AND VILLAINS OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE: THEIR LIVES AND LEGENDS by Stephen Basdeo. A look at the figures behind the growth of the British Empire, either heroes or villains depending on who tells the tale..
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THE LIVES &FOOD AND FEAST IN MODERN OUTLAW TALES edited by Alexander L. Kaufman and Penny Vlagopoulos. This academic collection includes Stephen Basdeo's article "Bred up a Butcher": The Meat Trade and Its Connection Criminality in Eighteenth-Century England.
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Buy Food and Feast in Modern Outlaw Tales (Outlaws in Literature, History, and Culture) on
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