By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II
“For an outlàw this is the law,
That men him take and bind:
Without pitie, hangèd to be,
And waver with the wind.”
– excerpt from 15th century English poem “The Nut Brown Maid”
Perhaps the most readily identifiable trait of the literary Robin Hood is his status as an outlaw – spending his life in and out of the Royal Forest of Nottingham with his band of merry comrades as they preyed upon the wealthy and evaded their evil nemesis, the Sheriff. However, the image of medieval outlawry we get in the Robin Hood corpus is a decidedly saccharine one – the criminal exploits of Robin and his band are often colored with a sort of chivalry and a playful cheekiness, as if being an outlaw in late medieval England was something equivalent to a clever prankster who just so happened to “borrow from those who can afford it” from time to time.
The reality, as we will discuss, was far less rosy and the experience of the historical 14th century English outlaw was vastly more violent and cruel than the myths would have us believe. Also, this piece will look at how the depiction of Robin Hood both bears similarities and critical differences to the lives of the real outlaws from that period.
First, in order to better understand the outlaw, one must understand the legal system of which he had run afoul. The exercise of legal authority in medieval England was a decidedly interpersonal affair – far more so than the impersonal, bureaucratic systems we in the modern era are accustomed to. In post-Magna Carta England, all municipal judicial and law enforcement roles were almost entirely filled by members of the local minor gentry or the landed yeomanry, giving each shire and county their own unique flavor when it came to law and order. From the 12th to the 16th Centuries, the primary law enforcement official of medieval England was the Sheriff, appointed in the King’s name to exercise a wide variety of both judicial and law enforcement responsibilities for his local shire – all collectively classified as “keeping the King’s Peace.” Assisting him through most of the 14th and 15th centuries was a body of men known as the “trailbastons” – essentially a posse of officials that served as both a law enforcement body and a roving trial court that could hear both civil and criminal cases wherever they went.
Outlawry occurred when someone summoned to court by either a trailbaston or a local sheriff failed to appear at the proscribed time and place – essentially forfeiting his right to a fair hearing under Magna Carta and thereby placing himself “outside of the law.” Such outlaws normally fared very poorly, being denied under threat of punishment any relief or aid from anyone within that local region and facing summary execution if caught. However, as the medieval English legal system was intimately dependent on local personalities, the real-world practice of this legal system was often far more problematic. Sheriffs during this period possessed an entrenched reputation for corruption and illicit behavior – often working with local criminal bands with whom they shared personal connections to some degree. Trailbastons often turned to brigandry themselves during times of weak royal leadership (as during the reign of the hapless Edward II) and there are even records of former outlaws managing to win pardon and patronage and find themselves appointed as bailiff or sheriff for the very shire they had preyed upon as outlaws!
As referenced above, medieval England hosted an entire subculture of outlaws that have a far wider historical reputation than any of their counterparts on the Continent. For whatever reason, the outlaw cut a much larger figure in English culture than anywhere else and, therefore, we can know far more about them. While figures like Hereward the Wake and Eustace the Monk had more political motives for their exploits, some of the great outlaws of medieval England were virtually unrecognizable from organized criminal syndicates of our own times.
Two of the most notorious were the Coterel and Folville Gangs – both of whom terrorized the Midlands of early 14th Century England. Both families ran their operations much like a modern mafia – kinship ties were paramount and the cores of both gangs were made up of either brothers or other very closely related family members. For nearly two decades, both families waged a campaign of robbery, extortion, protection rackets, kidnapping, and murder in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire. In stark contrast to our green-clad hero of fiction, both the Coterels and the Folvilles hailed from minor gentry – James Coterel and Eustace Folville were both consecrated knights even. They were also avowed “equal opportunists” when it came to their victims – they preyed upon the commoners with as much enthusiasm as they did the elite. In fact, they both maintained close relationships with the local nobility, often using such relationships for protection and patronage.
Both gangs rose to immense notoriety in 1332 when they embarked on a collaborative venture in the kidnapping and ransoming of an unpopular and corrupt Royal Justice of the Peace, Sir Richard Wylughby. The young King Edward III was initially furious at the obvious insult to his authority but was curiously persuaded by his council to pay the ransom and negotiate pardons with both families (in return for considerable fines).
When one takes into account the grander historical context of that time, it may become obvious why King Edward was directed towards that particular course of action. In 1332, Edward began in earnest his wars in Scotland and the military system he developed to provide manpower for those wars required the extensive voluntary cooperation of local magnates and yeomen, be they in or outside of the law. The Royal pardon in return for military service became an effective vehicle for providing ready pools of manpower for the King’s armies and a very popular means of escaping justice for past misdeeds among outlaws. Both the Coterels and the Folvilles served extensively in Edward’s wars in France and Scotland, winning pardons for virtually all their criminal pasts, albeit at substantial cost. With their pardons came greater social advancement, which only incentivized them to further seek legitimate opportunities and leave their former lives as outlaws behind. Eustace Folville died in 1347 – at the time he was in possession of three parts of a knight’s fee and as a local magistrate for Leicestershire.
As we can see, the world of the real medieval English outlaw was far from the idealized portrait we see in the Robin Hood tales, however there are still faint similarities that can be found. In the next piece, we will discuss another subculture of medieval England that possibly played an even larger role in the creation of Robin Hood as we know him – that of the English military archer of the Hundred Years War.
Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press. You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham
Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.
Bellamy, John. Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973)
Top Image: A sixteenth-century printed edition of the Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode