The first literary reference to  Robin Hood comes from Piers Plowman by William Langland from circa 1377:

‘I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster
as the preest it singeth
but I kan rhymes of Robyn hood and
Randolf Earl of Chestre’

Translates to:

‘I do not know my Paternoster
perfectly as the priest sings it,
but I know rhymes of Robin Hood
and Randolf Earl of Chester.’

The world famous outlaw Robin Hood was a hero of Medieval Ballads...

An excerpt from Piers Ploughman by William Langland

Picture: An excerpt from Piers Ploughman by William Langland

Alongside Robin Hood in this same poem another collection of medieval outlaws gets a mention... the Folvilles.

‘..and fechen it for false men
 with Folvyles law…’


'and fix it for false men
with Folvilles law...'

This excerpt suggest that there were some people called the Folvilles who obeyed their own rules and sorted out deceitful or 'false' men with their own brand of the law.

Were these men honourable as the poem suggests? Fine upstanding sorts who brought justice to the land in the fashion of their literary more famous contemporary?

Perhaps you should read the following before committing to a decision...

The Folvilles:

John de Folville, lord of Ashby-Folville, Leicestershire

and Teigh in Rutland died in 1310...

He left 7 sons...

John the eldest inherited the manor...

The other 6:

Laurence, Richard (priest of Teigh in Rutland),

Robert, Thomas and Walter

under the leadership of their elder brother Eustace...

...became a notorious gang of extortionists, robbers, vandals, hired thugs and murders.

In 1326 in one of the most famous crimes of the day also involving Roger de la Zouche they murdered Roger Bellers a Baron of the Exchequer on the road from Melton to Leicester.

They were outlawed, and  fled the country…

Folvilles Cross (remains) said to mark the spot of the murder of Roger Bellers

Picture: Folvilles Cross (remains) said to mark the spot of the murder of Roger Bellers

In 1327 they had returned and are recorded as committing a series of robberies in Lincolnshire.

The Sheriff of Nottingham was informed by the government:

‘Robert and Simon de Folville, with a band of malefactors, were roaming abroad in search of victims to beat, wound, and hold to ransom’.

A Simon de Folville is listed in an inquisition Post Mortem in Nottingham in 1356 into a robbery in 1335 (see a robbery in the forest 1335 entry for more details)... is this the same Simon de Folville?

Between 1327 and 1330 Eustace alone was involved in 3 to 4 murders and 3 robberies.

In 1329 they were pardoned in exchange for fighting for the king .

However while garrisoned with the kings army in Leicester they robbed the burgesses of the town of their belongings!!!

In 1330. Their pardon was overturned.

Then in 1331 they were hired for £20 by the a Canon of Sepringham and the Cellarer of the Cistercian house of Haverholm to destroy a rivals watermill!!

A medieval watermill as depicted on the 14th century Luttrell Psalter.jpg

Picture: A medieval watermill as depicted on the 14th century Luttrell Psalter

But all that became merely a backstory to the main event on their CV when ...

...On the 14th January 1332 the Folville gang and a number of associates kidnapped the future Chief Justice of the Kings bench Sir Richard de Willoughby.

On the road from Melton to Grantham

They smuggled him into Lincolnshire and moved from wood to wood to avoid capture.

A ransom of 1200 marks was paid for his release

The kidnappers were as follows:

Robert Lovett the parson of Ashwell since 1316

James Coterel of the similarly notorious Coterel family gang from Derbyshire who ran riot in the High Peak Forest with his brothers John and Nicholas (more about the Coterels soon).

The aptly named Roger Savage!

and not forgetting… Alan Baston the Canon of Sepringham who had hired the Folvilles to smash the watermill.

A collection of thugs, thieves, scoundrels and ... Vicars!!!

The governments response:

A Trailbaston Commission (a sort of posse of judges) was sent to bring the felons to justice.

Not much seems to have availed except that James Coterel and Roger Savage were pursued to the wild forest of the High Peak in Derbyshire, but escaped after a tip-off

The commission in fact failed to bring anyone to justice!

Before too long Eustace was serving the King again, this time in the hundred years war which had recently started.

Once again serving the king seems to have earned him a pardon.

In fact Eustace died a natural death in 1347 having never faced justice.

The other brothers were not so lucky:

In 1340 Richard Folville took refuge in the church of Teigh in Rutland where he had been priest for 20 years.

After he killed one of his pursuers and wounded two others with arrows shot from within the church...

He and his accomplices- most likely his brothers- were dragged out and beheaded…

A medieval final shoot-out!!!

We know all about this because it was recorded in a Papal Bull (from the Pope himself) into the incident.

Because Richard Folville was a priest taking refuge in a church (despite his rather dubious record) the execution was deemed unlawful.

The poor people who had carried out the 'crime' of bringing the Folvilles to justice, were forced to pray for forgiveness outside all the neighbouring parish churches...

They were beaten with a rod for their sins while a chantrist sang psalms of forgiveness.


medievl papal bull

Picture: A medieval Papal Bull

All these different incidents throughout the medieval period led to the belief around the country that:

disturbers of the peace are said to gather together daily to do evil; they ride in force by day and night taking and robbing people at their will, imprisoning some of them until they have made grievous (or sometimes ‘intolerable’) ransoms. They form congregations and conventicles and wander in woods and other public and private places, ambushing wayfarers whom they rob and sometimes slay.

In all these things they are aided and abetted by local people, who incite them to their evil deeds and shield them after they are done’.

(Stones, E. 1956. The Folvilles of Ashby Folville, Leicestershire, and their associates in crime, 1326-1347. Transactions of the Royal historical Society 77).

It is interesting to note that the common people of the time would shelter outlaws in safe houses. Outlaws were seen as heroes even in their own time- the Langland poem was written only a few years after the Folvilles crimes were committed.

It is easy to see how such characters became legendary.  Many of the exploits of the outlaws above have been absorbed into the myths of Robin Hood. The eariest ballads of the man in green show he was not against bouts of extreme violence himself (chopping off Guy of Gisbornes head and dancing around with it on a pole for starters).

These accounts also go someway to explaining why in the early ballads Robin had a dislike for Bishops and the clergy. There aren't many religious men mentioned above who would make good role models to their flock.

The thirst for such tales (often full of violence and trickery) was as strong in medieval times as is it to this day.

History of the Folvilles from: Stones, E. 1956. The Folvilles of Ashby Folville, Leicestershire, and their associates in crime, 1326-1347. Transactions of the Royal historical Society 77

Andy Gaunt, first published 05/01/2012)

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