The 14th-century Mafia? Folville, Coterel & Co

In August 1328, a priest in Derbyshire was beaten up and his church robbed by a gang of armed thugs. Perhaps that sounds familiar; after all, it fits well into the popular view of medieval lawlessness, vigilante justice and endemic violence. However, this particular incident wasn’t random violence perpetrated by drunken idiots; it was a calculated act carried out by an organised criminal gang. What’s more, the criminal gang had been paid to do it by another priest. The gang’s client, one Master Robert Bernard, had until recently been the incumbent of the parish of Bakewell in Derbyshire, but had been expelled from Bakewell after embezzling church funds and failing to pay the stipulated sums to the poor on Founder Days. As he’d arrived to say Mass on Christmas Day in 1327, his parishioners, instead of wishing him a merry Christmas and showering him with Yuletide gifts, had stripped him of his eucharistic vestments and sent him packing. Angry, humiliated and jealous of his successor, Bernard paid the criminal gang to beat up the new priest, Walter Can. They dutifully did this and then stole 10 shillings from the church funds for good measure.

The disputed parish of Bakewell, Derbyshire. ~ Copyright Rob Bendall
The disputed parish of Bakewell, Derbyshire. ~ Copyright Rob Bendall
This case is the first reference to the Coterel gang, a notorious family-run outfit which terrorised the Peak District in the early 14th century. The annals of this period are stuffed with references to large-scale criminal gangs which engaged in robbery, pillaging, abduction and murder among other crimes. In the absence of an effective police force, they terrorised the length and breadth of their counties, sometimes for decades without ever being apprehended. As with the Italian-American mafiosi in The Godfather, they were organised in tightly knit family units, with husband and wife, brother and sister working together. Contrary to what one might expect, they were not necessarily beggars thieving in order to scrape together a living. Some of the robber bands, including the Coterel gang, came from small landowning families with ties to the church.

Clergy and churches do feature frequently in these gangs’ exploits. Take an incident in 1340, when another gang of armed men invaded the church at Teigh, Rutland, this time murdering the priest, dragging him out into the churchyard and beheading him. The difference is that the rector of Teigh was actually a member of the notorious Folville gang, and the armed men were law enforcement officers of a sort, headed by a local Justice of the Peace. The Folvilles were roughly contemporary to the Coterel gang, and they terrorised Leicestershire, where they were landowners of some prominence. There were seven brothers and only John, the eldest, who inherited the family estates, was never implicated in a crime. Eustace, the second oldest brother, was the leader, and Richard Folville was a cleric; evidently his vocation did not deter him from violent crime!

Teigh church, where Richard Folville was murdered
Teigh church, where Richard Folville was murdered

The Teigh case shows that like the Coterels, the Folvilles could be hired if offered enough money. In 1331 their services were engaged by a canon of Sempringham Priory and the cellarer of Haverholm Abbey. These two clergymen, who had previously sheltered the Folvilles from the law, paid them £20 to destroy a water mill belonging to a rival. Sure enough, the mill was soon a smoking ruin. The Folvilles’ services were not limited to sabotage; in 1326 they set upon and murdered Sir Roger Bellere with the aid of two local landowners.

The murder shocked contemporaries because of Bellere’s standing; he was a Baron of the Exchequer and owned nine manors. The Folvilles didn’t turn up to their trial, instead vanishing into the wilds (probably Wales or France), and were promptly declared outlaws. Evidently their new status didn’t deter them, since within a few years petitions were being sent to the Sheriff of Nottingham complaining that two of the Folville brothers were roaming abroad again at the head of a robber band, waylaying, stealing from and even murdering travellers. In the period 1327-1330, Eustace was either directly accused of, or mentioned in connection with, three robberies, four murders, and a rape, which is almost certainly an underestimate.

Robbers kill a passer-by. 15th century
Robbers kill a passer-by. 15th century

Every now and again, the brothers were forced to rehabilitate themselves as the net of justice closed in. The best way to do this was by enlisting as soldiers. They joined Roger Mortimer’s army in putting down the rebellion of the Earl of Lancaster in late 1328. However, old habits die hard. When quartered with the army in Leicester under Mortimer’s protection, they looted the people of Leicester to the tune of £200 worth of goods.

When they weren’t working for the king in the hope of a pardon, 14th century criminal gangs sometimes worked together on the most ambitious projects, as with the abduction of  Sir Richard de Willoughby (the future Chief Justice of the King’s Bench) in January 1332. Multiple gangs were involved, including the Coterel gang, the Folville brothers, the Bradburn gang and the aptly named Savage Company, led by Roger Savage. Even those who were supposed to be on the side of law enforcement did not scruple at getting involved; also present were Sir Robert de Vere (the constable of Rockingham Castle) and Sir Robert Tuchet (the former constable of Melbourne Castle).The gangs avoided capture by smuggling Willoughby from one wood to another. He was ransomed for 1300 marks before 24 hours had passed – perhaps they ought to have asked for more…

So what happened to the Folville brothers? They certainly weren’t all brought to justice. Eustace’s fortunes actually took a turn for the better. After Willougby’s kidnapping, service with Edward III’s army in Scotland and Flanders appears to have gained him a full pardon. Eustace died peacefully in 1346, a councillor at Crowland Abbey, never having stood trial for any of the charges lodged against him. As for Richard Folville – the beheaded rector – he was the only Folville brother to suffer from official retribution. In a final twist of irony, the men who executed him were ordered by Pope Clement VI to undergo a penance for killing a priest, which involved being whipped at each of the main churches in the area.

King Edward III, who gave Eustace Folville a full pardon
King Edward III, who gave Eustace Folville a full pardon

One obvious question to ask is why they, and other gangs such as the Coterels, managed to stay at large for so long – and in some cases, for the rest of their life – when they were well-known offenders. Part of the answer is that Justices of the Peace and other law enforcement officers were highly dependent on local information and assistance in their operations. Given the powerful hold which the Folvilles held on Leicestershire, it’s not surprising that many people wouldn’t inform on them for fear of retribution.

Others may even have approved of what the Folvilles were doing. The official commissions against them feature many complaints along the lines of ‘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’. While these complaints might seem to excuse the commissions’ own failures, there is probably some truth to them. For example, when they were almost caught whilst hiding out with the Coterels in the Peak District, they escaped because a local informer tipped them off.

Their two main targets, Bellere and Willoughby, were after all corrupt and unpopular figures. Bellere used his office to seize land and siphon money to his patrons. The presence of two other Leicestershire landowners at the murder suggests a conspiracy aided by the Folvilles, rather than a lone crime by the latter. Willoughby was no more popular. In 1340 he was trapped by a second gang in Thurcaston Castle. He was later imprisoned by Edward III on charges of corruption (‘selling the laws like cattle’), indicted by several juries across the country, and forced to pay 1200 marks for the king’s pardon (which is ironic, considering that the Folvilles managed to get 1300 marks out of him!). Eustace Folville and his brothers may have been seen as the honest, tough opponents of these figures, even if the restoration of justice was not exactly their primary motive.

The Folvilles were enshrined in the popular memory as outlaw-heroes just a few generations after their death, with tales of their deeds appearing in medieval ballads alongside songs of Robin Hood. William Langland’s poem Piers Plowman (1377) refers to ‘Folvyles Law’, portraying them not as immoral lawbreakers, but rather as agents of an unofficial law, outside human legislation and less susceptible to abuse. This is the kind of legend which has grown up around figures such as Robin Hood. Once stripped of his Merry Men, gaudy green outfit and philanthropism (the latter was a nineteenth century invention), was Robin Hood so very different from the Folvilles?
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne having jolly larks (1912)
Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne having jolly larks (1912)

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