Medieval Outlaws


I haven’t really looked at crime before on the blog, except to say that there was a perception that there was more of it after the Black Death, but I’ve written the first draft of a novel in which a band of outlaws terrorises an area of Oxfordshire and, as always, I want to know that what I’m writing about is correct.

Put all thoughts of Robin Hood out of your head, though. These were not men who robbed the rich to give to the poor. They would rob, rape or kill anyone on behalf of anyone, or nobody. Like Robin Hood, however, the leaders usually came from the aristocracy. Because any inheritance went to the oldest son, younger sons often had nothing. Like everyone else, they couldn’t marry unless they had the means of supporting a family. They were usually brought up as squires and trained to fight. Such men tended to make a living from wars, taking ransoms or booty to set themselves up. When there was no war to make them rich, these men often became mercenaries or turned to crime, unless they already had enough money to settle down. Since they were usually trained soldiers, outlaws were often pardoned because the king needed them in his army when he went to war.

There were several large gangs of outlaws in the fourteenth century. One of the most famous was the Folvilles. There were seven brothers, sons of a minor aristocrat. The oldest of them inherited their father’s manor and the others made crime their livelihood. They robbed, raped, kidnapped, beat and killed people as a way of life. It’s possible that the ‘law-abiding’ oldest brother assisted them with information, even if he didn’t physically take part in their criminal activities. At various times some of the brothers were caught and tried for murder, but acquitted. One of them, Richard, was even a priest for over twenty years, until he was dragged from his church and beheaded.

The oldest Folville son, John, inherited and did not become an outlaw. The second son, Eustace, inherited a small manor near his older brother, but obviously considered it insufficient. He and two of his younger brothers joined two other men to kill an old enemy in 1326. By the end of 1328 Eustace had been accused of four murders, a rape and three robberies. He probably committed more than these known and recorded crimes. The members of the gang were pardoned by Roger Mortimer so that they could fight for him against the earl of Lancaster, who had rebelled against him and Queen Isabella.

The Folvilles returned to their life of crime shortly afterwards. By 1331 they were criminals for hire. They joined with other gangs and kidnapped Sir Richard Willoughby, a wealthy judge. They robbed him and ransomed him for 1,300 marks (or £866 and a few pennies). To put this in context, a skilled labourer earned about 4 pennies a day. There were 240 pennies to a pound. £866 represents about 52,000 days labour, or 142 years (provided I’ve got the sums right).

Following this, serious attempts were made to capture and punish those involved. Two hundred members of the various gangs were arrested, but only fifty appeared before judges. Most of those were acquitted, since those involved in bringing them to justice were terrified of them.

Another famous group of fourteenth-century outlaws was the Coterel gang who operated in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire from 1328 to 1332. They were also minor aristocracy and served Edward III as well as committing crimes. They were even bailiffs and Members of Parliament. Occasionally they worked with the Folvilles.

In 1338 many members of the gangs went with Edward III to the Low Countries at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Eustace Folville gave up crime, was knighted and served on the Crécy campaign in 1346. He died peacefully the following year, living longer than other members of the gang. When Eustace gave up crime, leadership of the gang went to his brother, Richard, who was rector of the church on Eustace’s manor. Members of the gang sought sanctuary in the church when men arrived to arrest them. Instead of respecting sanctuary, their pursuers dragged them from the church and beheaded them.

As a result of what I’ve learned, I’ve decided that the outlaws I’ve created are far too tame. They’re going to have to be a lot tougher to live up to the reputation of the Folvilles and the Coterels.


Medieval Lives by Terry Jones

The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer



Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Crime and Law

52 responses to “Medieval Outlaws

  1. Kidnapping a judge! That was really bold. Did gangs also collect protection fees from local individuals or communities?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, they were also in the protection racket. I think I’m going to put that in the novel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In that case they may not always have been as frightening as they sound. People who lived in a “protected zone” may have felt safer knowing they were around.

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, but the protection money would have been paid to protect the people from the outlaws themselves, not from other gangs.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Couldn’t it have done both? As in, If you pay us/shelter us/are nice to us, we’ll look after you. If not, watch out.

            OK, this is complicated, but…
            I have a completely unresearched theory that certain groups in society are more conservative than others. Well, not completely unresearched – as a child I used words and played games that I think Peter and June Opie in their book ‘The Language and Lore of Children’ – or something similar – suggest descended directly from medieval times.
            Families were larger back then, children were brought up by older children, so the lore was conserved that way.
            Another more conservative group may be aristocrats. Over 400 years ago the Earl of Southampton was quick to help the Danvers brothers flee the country after they killed a man. But during my lifetime I remember reading that the police found the nastier case of the murder of the Lucans’ nanny hard to investigate. A lord was the prime suspect and they got the feeling that superior social ranks had closed against them.
            Are outlaws also a more conservative group? Well, I once lived in a part of town that some professional crims regarded as their turf. I always felt 100% safe there because I used to go to the pub they favoured.
            So what did mid-20th century children, aristocrats, and professional criminals all have in common?
            I’m not sure, but maybe each group was a sub-culture. So possibly less inclined to be influenced by mainstream values, and therefore less inclined to change?

            Liked by 2 people

            • Is it the same if it’s not your turf. I understand about gangsters protecting their own. It was said that the part of London where the Krays ruled was safe for women to be out at night, but if they’d moved to Birmingham, say, would the same thing have been true? I don’t know.

              You’re probably right about the conservatism, though. The outlaws were only too happy to conform to stereotype and go off to fight a war – for anyone.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. I think youi should pitch a screenplay to HBO!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Shaunn Munn

    I love the article & Toutparmoi’s perceptions! Humans have always found crime fascinating! Fear, guilt, greed,opportunity, and scores of other factors work to turn seemingly good folk into terrors of the shire!

    The birth rate was a crapshoot in those days, heavily in favor of early death. It would be a disaster for a noble family to have no sons for the critical custom of primogeniture! Daughter divided equally, which would tear a carefully garnered demense into fractions.

    A man would try for as many sons as possible. Anything could wipe out a child, even a simple cut! He had to hedge his bets on quantity over quality. After all, when he died, the problem of dealing with the siblings passed into the heir’s hands. The progenitor could die with HIS hands clean!

    Ah, the sticky problems with younger sons! Well, tuck one, maybe two, into the church. Train the leftovers for battle. Plenty of nobles needed meinies.
    Kings needed soldiers. The Holy Land needed redeeming. And who knew? Maybe the heir would die childless?

    And how might an heir regard those loose arrows without a quiver? If he treated them unkindly, his peers & the Church would frown! If he needed help to man an outlying manor not lying near the main demense, who else should he turn to but a brother? For the heir, the problem was likely a double-edged sword! Many demenses were tiny, unable to maintain excess siblings when the heirs produced their own families. What to DO?

    He had a tightrope to walk. Upset the brother, and he might take to the back lanes for pillage & plunder. Older brothers were responsible for much of how the siblings affected the community. If an heir came down hard on a brother, say, killing one in the act of raping a nun, the courts could easily come down hard on HIM, for the heinous crime of fratricide! Crimes were categorized by Biblical law. Fratricide was far worse than rape. The heir could head to the gallows!

    How many of the heirs looked the other way as a means to keep wolfish brothers from ganging up on them? Heirs were expected to keep Holy days with family. Imagine a great Christmas banquet with a family like the Folville’s? How secure did Big Brother feel among the siblings during the revelries? I’m willing to wager the top Folville never turned his back on his family!

    Isolation probably exacerbated things. It probably helps explain the recurring difficulties with the Northumbrians & the Crown. The King’s Bench was far away, and frontier justice had to be swift, however biased it might be.

    Oh, I am thinking of so many more scenarios that fit with the those in your intriguing work! Bravo for your careful research! You’re a great spackle for the cracks of my mind! Best wishes!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Shaunn. My mind is now occupied with imagining the Folvilles at Christmas. I think you’re right about John possibly being afraid of his brothers, but I can also see the brothers trying to keep him happy so that they had somewhere to run, should they need it. That’s given me an idea about my outlaws, though. I wonder if I can make it work.

      Have a great Christmas.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Fascinating! Of course, the ideas of crime gangs aren’t new to modern times, but I didn’t know the relationship between the aristocracy and crime. I’ve always thought the “oldest son” inheritance rule brought with it a lot of negative consequences, but now that seems even more so. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. What a mob!We do have an over romantic view of the past I think…all cleaned up and smelling nicely…I like that you get into the nitty gritty details April..and I am looking forward to your ruffians!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hmmm, I’m the youngest of two boys but I went to work after school. Maybe I should have considered a different path.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There were surprisingly few options if you were a second or third son of an aristocrat. If you were fortunate someone left you some money or a property. If not, you could become a soldier and hope to make some money from ransoms or booty. Your main alternative to that was to go into the church, but that also required money.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Unbound Roots

    April, I just love your historical posts and the research you put into them. What a sad way of life for men who didn’t inherit anything. I’m not always happy about life has evolved, but I’m sure happy this practice has passed. Great post, April!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Did they get the ransom? If so they could have retired from outlawry and lived in the judge’s mansion the rest of their lives!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Paid more than writing! 😥

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Shaunn Munn

    One thing to remember is that primogeniture was a bane for all classes.
    Maybe that was a reason apprenticeships were so favored. Oldest boy inherited the business, but younger siblings often learned entirely different trades, to help them set up in the world. Reduced family angst.

    Even the lowly cotter left the best he had to the oldest boy (after the Lord snatched his heriot). How DID my ancestors survive?

    But the upper crust were so fixed in the system it often boomeranged. Some fathers managed good marriages for younger sons. Thinking of the Nevilles of Westmoreland & the Furnivalls. But these were great lords with immense demenses. I once saw a map of family holdings in England around 1400 AD, Fractured as bad as Germany before unification! And they weren’t static. The boundaries shifted each generation!

    And when women inherited! The dynamics REALLY shifted! If the women were cloistered the land would become Church property unless the cousins had good lawyers! Girls were betrothed & even wed very early in hopes of snatching an heiress.

    More spackle for the cracks of my mind! Happy New Year!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Fascinating post! With great contributions from all of your readers.
    We certainly love (in fiction) our old world posh criminals, especially if they prey on snooty folks, get away with it, and live to tell an entertaining tale.

    Nowadays (in fact) we hate privileged wrongdoers for their crimes – usually dull ones – like fraud, embezzlement, insider trading, while sometimes recognising that most crimes are committed by the “Have nots” against the “Have even less.”

    An HBO series? Too right. “Outlaws.” Historically accurate enough to stop the armchair amateurs (like me) from sneering. With lots of horses, nudity and hard core gore. Plus perfectly depilated (Sp?) female bodies.

    On a more sober note, I should add that I looked up “manor” in the OED and see that its use in the crime control context dates in print from 1862. So it has a pedigree, but not a very long one.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Denise. Even as I was writing it and saying not to think about Robin Hood, all I could think about was Robin Hood and the TV series I watched as a child. This was the one with Richard Greene. I think it has coloured my view of life in the Middle Ages ever since.

      Speaking of past centuries presented accurately on TV, did they show the Christmas Upstart Crow in your neck of the woods?

      Liked by 1 person

    • Shaunn Munn

      Ah, the venerable OED! I love that its lexicographers encourage delving into ancient manuscripts for ever earlier documentation. Perhaps we may yet in this generation find musty old ledgers and shire archives to push the crime records back a few centuries. I’m betting they existed.

      Thinking about the many communities in England that simply disappeared off the map, along with Church records and other critical data, it seems reasonable to assume the nomenclature concerning manor crime control is much older. But, I suppose, for authenticity’s sake, the authority of the OED is the best benchmark, Alas!

      Liked by 2 people

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  14. Good post. For some reason, I’ve stopped getting notifications about your new posts. Any idea what I can do to unscramble the problem? I’m guessing it’s on my end rather than yours, because there are other blogs that seem to have disappeared lately.


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