Organised crime in Medieval England

A large sum of money – £4,000 in gold, to be precise – is due to be transferred from London to the king at Leicester, a distance of ninety miles. How many men do you think will be guarding it? Fifty? A hundred? Two hundred? You might be surprised to hear that this massive treasure is to be guarded by just five archers. Your thoughts on this might not differ greatly from those of many criminals in England at the time.

However good those five archers are at their job, entrusting such a huge sum to so few men over such a long distance is simply asking for trouble. It is no coincidence that tales of Robin Hood enter popular culture at this time. There are rich pickings to be had from waylaying those with money, and those who can organise a gang to carry out a series of killings and robberies stand in a very good position to obtain considerable sums.

Roughly a third of all organised criminal gangs in England are composed of family units. Obviously the majority of these are informal collaborations. Husbands and wives often work together on the wrong side of the law, and so do brothers. Sometimes even sisters get involved. The Waraunt family of Salle, Norfolk, includes three sisters, one brother, and another male relative, John Waraunt. Two of the sisters and brother are accused of receiving stolen goods in 1321; they escape punishment, as does another sister in the same year. John, however, is found guilty of stealing clothes and household goods worth eight shillings from a fellow townsman. He is hanged. In 1325 the four remaining members of the Waraunt family are back behind the bars. A specific instructions is issued to their gaoler that they should be treated harshly. They all survive, and they also survive the appeal of an approver in February 1326 that they have stolen a quantity of cloth. Two of the sisters are again accused of theft in August 1326. They remain at large, thieving where they can.

Robbers kill a passer-by. 15th century

Robbers kill a passer-by. 15th century

Families like Waraunts are obviously a nuisance to their neighbours but, in relation to some gangs, they are relatively harmless. Far more serious are the armed criminals who use force against their victims. You really do not want to run into the likes of the Worcestershire gang leader Malcolm Musard, who in 1304 attacks a rectory with a group of archers, having been paid to terrorise the new incumbent by the aggrieved old one. Nor do you want to come up against John Fitzwalter, an Essex gang leader, who twice besieges Colchester and holds the entire town to ransom.

How are these gangs able to remain at large? The answer will probably shock you. And yet it will probably not surprise you. The perpetrators very often have links with the richest and most powerful elements of society. A number of them are knights and members of the gentry or even the nobility. The earl of Devon threatens to murder a Justice of the Peace as he rides through the county. It is not unknown for a knight to draw his sword in court and hold it against a judge’s throat. Even the most prominent judges are affected by threats and bribes. Sir Richard Willoughby is accused of ‘selling the laws like cattle’ and fined £1,000. In 1350 no less a figure than Sir William Thorp, Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, is imprisoned for accepting bribes.

South Chapel in St Mary's Church in Ashby Folville (c) Peter Smith

South Chapel in St Mary’s Church in Ashby Folville (c) Peter Smith

A good example of what the judges are up against is the Folville gang. At the time of his death (in 1310), John Folville, lord of the manors of Ashby Folville (Leicestershire) and Teigh (Rutland) has seven sons: John, Eustace, Laurence, Richard, Robert, Thomas and Walter. The eldest, John, inherits Ashby Folville and remains within the law. The others do not. The most dangerous, Eustace Folville, inherits Teigh and joins with two of his brothers and the Zouche brothers (Ralph, Roger and Ivo) in forming a gang to waylay their longstanding enemy, Roger Bellers. Bellers is an important man; a baron of the Exchequer, he is protected by none other than the king’s favourite, Hugh, Lord Despenser. Nevertheless, on 19 January 1326, on the road between Melton Mowbray and Leicester, they murder him. They drive a long knife down past his collar-bone and into his heart.

The guilty men flee the country. In their absence they are declared outlaws. But they are in luck, because in September 1326, Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella invade England and put an end to Hugh Despenser. All proceedings against the Folvilles are quashed,and they are pardoned. Free to return to England, and believing they have political protectors of their own, they embark on a series of robberies in Lincolnshire. In 1327 they grow bolder, roaming the highways with a larger gang of confederates, looking for victims to threaten, rape and incarcerate for ransom. Over the next couple of years Eustace is personally accused of at least four murders, a rape and three robberies, and these figures are almost certainly an underestimate of his crimes. But the net closes in around them once more, and, in late 1328, they are forced to rehabilitate themselves by joining Mortimer’s army in putting down the rebellion of the earl of Lancaster. They all secure pardons again. But while under Mortimer’s protection they loot the people of Leicester to the tune of £200 worthof goods.

Attempts in 1330 to arrest the Folville gang are ineffective. Their position in Leicestershire is unassailable. The eldest Folville brother, John, the only one who has taken no part in any crime, has by this stage been appointed a Keeper of the Peace. He may well been supplying his brothers with information. Sir Robert Colville tries to arrest Eustace at Teigh, but is beaten back and later accused of an illegal attack. Roger de Wensley is hired to track down both the Folvilles and the other notorious gang in the region, the Coterel gang (led by James Coterel), but when he finds the Coterels he simply joins them.

The monument of Robin Hood

The monument of Robin Hood

In 1331 the Folvilles are hired by a canon of Sempringham Priory and the cellarer of Haverholm Abbey. These clergymen, who have previously sheltered the gang from the law, pay them £20 to destroy a water mill belonging to a rival. Soon the mill is a smoking ruin. The Folville’s next crime is on a far more ambitious scale. They join forces with several other criminal gangs, including the Coterel gang, the Bradburn gang, the Savage Company (led by Roger Savage, a friend of James Coterel), Sir Robert Tuchet, former constable of Melbourn Castle, and Sir Robert de Vere, constable of Rockingham Castle. The plan is to kidnap a rich royal judge, Sir Richard Willoughby (the same judge who will later be accused of ‘selling the laws like cattle’). They seize him on 14 January 1332, while he is carrying out an oyer et terminer commission in the region. They rob him of £100 of his goods and ransom him for the colossal sum of 1,300 marks (£886 13s 4d).

Such extraordinary, reckless banditry cannot go unchecked, and it is with the Folville and Coterel gangs in mind that the most stringent of all the trailbaston commissions is issued in 1332. In charge are the three most important judges in the kingdom: Geoffrey le Scrope (Chief Justice of the King’s Bench), William de Herle (Chief Justice of the Common Pleas) and John Stonor (the previous Chief Justice  of the Common Pleas). Despite this show of strength from the government, they fail to bring the key criminals to justice. James Coterel and Roger Savage retreat into the wilderness of High Peak forest in Derbyshire. Orders are issued to arrest no fewer than two hundred adherents of the Folville and Coterel gangs. Only a quarter appear before the judges, and virtually all of them are acquitted by local juries, composed of men too scared to convict them.

In the late 1330s the Folvilles and the Coterels find ways to assimilate themselves back into society. A large number of them join Edward III’s military expedition to the Low Countries in 1338. After this, Eustace gives up crime. In an extraordinary turn of fortune he is knighted, and dies peacefully in 1347, having served on the Crécy campaign the previous year. Leadership of the gang passes to Richard Folville, rector of Teigh. He and his fellow criminals meet their end in 1340, when their arch enemy, Sir Robert Colville, finally catches up with them. Colville pursues them to Teigh, where they seek sanctuary in the church. After ten years of trying to arrest them, Colville has no intention of giving them any hope whatsoever, and he attacks. There is a bitter shoot-out; the Folvilles send volleys of arrows flying from the church windows but they are unable to resist Colville. They are dragged outside, one by one, and beheaded for resisting arrest.

Text from ‘The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England’ by Ian Mortimer