When a propertied man died, he usually left the whole kit and kaboodle to his eldest son. Sir John Folville was a respected member of the gentry who had seven sons. The eldest, also Sir John, inherited the property and took little part in his brothers’ nefarious activities. The younger ones had to fend for themselves. There were options, a career in the church being the most popular and one of the brothers, the unlucky Richard, became a member of the clergy. A man who knew how to use a sword – and most of them did – could hire it out; there was always a war going on somewhere in Europe. Another option was outlawry. Like many others of good birth, that was the route to infamy and riches chosen by Eustace Folville and his five brothers.
The gang’s organisation was not dissimilar to any other business. There was a hierarchy headed by the top man, Eustace, division of labour, recruitment program, maintainers, and laws. Some of the brothers held public office. Richard was the rector of Teigh and the only one to suffer for the gang’s crimes. A local justice of the peace and his officers entered the church, dragged him into the churchyard and beheaded him. Pope Clement ordered the guilty parties to do penance for killing a priest, which involved a whipping at the major churches in the area.
When they were not committing crimes on their own behalf the Folvilles were often hired by other men of rank to commit robbery, extortion and murder. They appear to have been hired by members of Sempringham Priory and Haverholm Abbey. One of their most notable crimes was the murder of the corrupt Roger Bellers, a Baron of the Exchequer, who was said to be a henchman of the infamous Hugh Despenser. Arrest warrants were issued naming, among others, four of the brothers.
Some of the fugitives, including Eustace, fled to France where they joined Queen Isabella and Sir Roger Mortimer. When the Queen led an invasion to rid the kingdom of Hugh Despenser, it’s likely the Folvilles returned with her.
King Edward II issued a general pardon to all who would fight for him, with the sole exceptions of Mortimer and the Folville gang. The invasion was an overwhelming success. Despenser and his father were executed and the King fell into the hands of his wife. The Folvilles were pardoned by the new regime.
Within a few years of their return, they were up to their old tricks and indictments were issued against them. They did not appear in court to answer the charges but made off to Derbyshire where they rode openly with the Cotterel brothers.
Such reprobates were bound to come to a bad end. Right? Well, no. To start with, they really weren’t all that bad. The ones they killed were considered worse than their killers, so the common people regarded them with approval and would not bear witness against them in court, nor help the authorities to apprehend them. Eustace was seen as a hero, an enforcer of God’s law against corrupt government officials, a kind of Robin Hood.
And no, they did not come to a bad end. None of them (excluding the unlucky Richard) ever stood trial for their crimes. They were given a pardon by King Edward III in return for military service. Eustace Folville was knighted for exemplary service. He served on commissions and one of his brothers became a member of Parliament. At the end of his life, Eustace was a member of the Abbott of Croyland’s Council. A very upright citizen.
Like the Folvilles, the outlaw Cotterel gang held responsible posts at both shire and national levels, as well as attracting influential supporters. James Cotterel managed to obtain the wardship of a rich widow. Nicholas Cotterel was the bailiff of Philippa, Edward III’s queen. A notable supporter of the gang was none other than the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sir Robert Ingram. High born gentry often hired the gang to do their dirty work.
They ignored summonses to court and rampaged through the Royal Forest of the Peak. Gradually, however, Crown officers caught members of the gang until the brothers were reduced to wandering through the forest with about 20 followers. Neither of them stood trial. Nicholas was selected to lead 60 men to fight in Scotland, but he absconded with their pay and was never seen again. James, who had some kind of association with Lincoln Cathedral became a Crown administrator!
And they say crime doesn’t pay!
It’s interesting to note that these gangs and others, were most active during the latter part of the reign of Edward II, a time of unrest when the king was hugely unpopular, his greedy and unscrupulous favourite Hugh Despenser virtually ruling the country and universally hated, and fighting between barons and King was rampant. There was little justice to be had at such times and the poor people suffered.
Why did they, and other gangs, manage to stay at large for so long – and in some cases, for the rest of their life – when they were well-known offenders. Why were such reprobates given pardons, even though they were credited with five murders? One of the reasons is that they undoubtedly had far-reaching influence. There is a suggestion that the Folvilles were supporters of Roger Mortimer and benefited from his protection.
It wasn’t only a few of the mighty who protected them. Justices of the Peace and other law enforcement officers were dependent on local information and assistance in their operations. Given the powerful hold which the Folvilles held on Leicestershire, and the Cotterels in Derbyshire, it’s not surprising that many people wouldn’t inform on them for fear of retribution. But there was more to it than that.
The Folvilles are mentioned by William Langland in Piers Plowman, written at least forty years later and containing the first allusion to Robin Hood.
‘..and fechen it for false men
with Folvyles law…’
‘and fix it for false men
with Folvilles law…’
The Folvilles may have been the basis for the Robin Hood legend. They certainly won the approval of the commons. The murder of Bellers, for instance, would have been cheered because he was corrupt and oppressed the poor. In many complaints against the outlaws are suggestions that they were aided and abetted by the local people. They may well have lined their own pockets and perhaps committed crimes of retribution, but it seems they also dispensed vigilante justice.
In a time of lawlessness and mayhem, it was perhaps the only form of justice the common people were able to obtain.