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.