Hereward the Wake escaping from an ambush, something he often had to do.
For people seeking justice around the time of Robin Hood the legal system was best avoided. New laws introduced by the Conqueror required that all Saxon freemen swore an oath of fealty (loyalty) to the king. Ten of these oath takers formed a tithing and they were obliged by their oath of loyalty to produce at court any wrongdoers. The sheriff administered the system and if the community failed to produce the culprit the tithing was fined and thus the community from which the felon fled suffered as a consequence.
If the victim of a crime appealed to his local lord for justice the accused person could challenge the complainant to battle. This was the equivalent to trial by ordeal. So if you were an elderly Saxon freeman whose son had been murdered by a young, fit, vigorous Norman you could go to the lord’s court, name the killer and find that the man who had murdered your son demanded the right to do battle with you which was not a very inviting prospect. More than likely the father would be killed as well although he did have the option of asking someone to fight on his behalf but where was the average Saxon villager likely to find such a person? If the father in the above example lost the battle challenge but lived to tell the tale then he would be deemed to be the guilty party and would be heavily fined for false accusation. As can be seen there was little point in seeking justice from the sheriff and there was no one else to appeal to.
Henry II made some reforms and we now have the “petty” jury. They did not hear evidence their job was to find out what had happened and report to the court accordingly. The accused could refuse trial by jury and as the trial jury might well include people who had named him as a criminal in the first place this might be sensible. However this was only putting off the evil day because the prisoner was held in gaol until he agreed to be tried, then later because this was felt to be inadequate even more pressure was applied to the prisoner who had to sit on the cold, bare floor, dressed only in the thinnest of shirts, and pressed with as great weight of iron as his wretched body could bear. His food was a little rotten bread, and his drink cloudy and stinking water. The day on which he ate he was not allowed to drink, and the day on which he had drink he was not allowed to taste bread. Only superhuman strength survived this punishment beyond the fifth or sixth day and some people were pressed to death this way. The advantage of this was that as the accused had not yet been convicted his property still passed to his next of kin otherwise the crown seized the property and land of a convicted felon.
The inevitable result was a deep reluctance of victims to accuse the perpetrators of crimes with the result that those in authority could do as they liked and get away with it. Because of this people feared the law and many of those who were summoned to appear in court failed to do so. If they failed to appear before the court after being summoned four times they were declared an outlaw and many people saw this as the best way of escaping the harsh application of these immoral laws. These outlaws were seen as the victims of an immoral legal system and the villagers and their friends often supported them by providing them with food.
Beverly Minster in Yorkshire was well known in the Middle Ages for providing ecclesiastical sanctuary. Hunted men fled there from all over England and once within the bounds of the Minster fugitives were given protection for 30 days while the clergy interceded on their behalf. This may account in part for the large numbers of outlaws in Yorkshire but if pleading the outlaws case failed then the offenders were handed over to the coroner who gave them a choice of either trial or exile.
Beverley was unique among ecclesiastical sanctuaries in offering a third alternative, the criminal might take an oath to become a servant of the church, give all his property to the crown and live within the town of Beverly for the rest of his life. Those who accepted were known as Frithmen. (Frith was a structure of social relationships designed to bring peace).
A famous story is told of one Toustain, a henchman of William the Conqueror, who at the time was laying waste the north of England. Toustain violated the sanctuary of Beverly by leading a band of soldiers into the Minster in pursuit of townsfolk who had fled there. As he crossed the threshold there was a flash of light. Toustain fell, his head completely turned around and his limbs transformed to hideous lumps. After this the Conqueror respectfully confirmed the Minster in its privileges. (See the Sheriff and Bishop page for more about Toustain/Thurstan.)
There were two classes of fugitives, the first were law abiding, these were the serves, villains or peasants who lived off the land and they could gain their freedom by escaping to a town thereby becoming fugitives. If they were able to live in a town for a year and a day without being claimed by their lord then they were freemen. This is where the expression comes from “Town air is free air” and these words were used in many town charters to proclaim the freedom of these fugitives.
Then there was the fugitive who, whether guilty and wishing to evade punishment or innocent and wishing to escape a lynch mob, could receive temporary sanctuary in a church. This fugitive, if he did not try to escape from the church, around which the community was obliged to place a guard, could either surrender to justice or take an oath to leave the country. In the latter case, all his moveable goods (chattels) were forfeit to the king who had the use of the felon's real estate for a year and a day after which possession reverted to its "lord." The King had the right to commit waste i.e. run it down as much as he wished with the consequence that its value would be reduced when it reverted to its "lord". Is this what happened to Robert Hood of Bichill whose house was still empty twenty-five years later and could something like this account for the repeated entries regarding Hobbe Hod's chattles? See here.
If a man tried to escape prosecution and failed to attend the court he could be deemed to be outlawed in his absence. The court then was able to deal with his main offence and the punishment known in practice by the name of Outlawry would be one of the following:
I. He could remain an outlaw.
II. He may forfeit personal estate.
III. He may forfeit the growing profits of the real estate.
IV. Imprisonment, etc.
The consequence of being outlawed was that the outlaw was completely rejected, denounced, and excluded. After sentencing their name was written down and published in a public place, this is the act of “proscription.” This meant they were outside the law and they could not expect to be protected by it. They lost their land and goods, neither could property be held, given, or bequeathed to the outlaw. The outlaw could not sue in a law court, or act as a juror. Medieval law enforcement was rough, ready and often harsh. To be outlawed was the most lenient sentence that could be passed on a person and there were so many outlaws in those days that many of those thus named continued to live and work as usual. Rather it was the punishment that could follow a writ of outlawry that was the crucial factor particularly as some outlaws were common criminals who sought to profit from their crimes, and often the punishment even for trivial misdemeanours was very severe, but what is very important for those who seek to find Robin Hood in the old Court Rolls is that nowhere do we ever read of him appearing in court, being summonsed to appear in court, or being sentenced by a court. However there was another kind of outlaw who was motivated by his desire to help others and by his actions he found himself outside the law. This is where we find our hero Robin Hood.
It becomes apparent why people might rise up against those in power over them, the peasants who worked the land were oppressed and exploited by lords, towns, governments, and lawyers and in retaliation their so-called crime may have been sparked off by one injustice too many. They were motivated by nothing more than a desire to right the wrongs perpetrated on him or his family and friends. If someone did succeed in obtaining justice his friends regarded him as a hero for it proved to them that they were superior to their opponents both in their prowess with sword, bow, longstaff or other weapon and most importantly to them that they were in the right regarding their moral integrity.
Then there were the barons whose actions were instigated by their attempt to defend their legal rights or to reclaim feudal titles or land and priveliges that may have been lost as a result of arbitrary and unjust actions either by the monarch or his representative. The baron had a legal right to protect himself and this was set out in the Magna Charta but even so he ran the risk of being outlawed.
Whether rich or poor these people sometimes sought to achieve their aims by disguise or trickery. Hereward the Wake for example exchanged clothes with a potter and borrowed his wares. Thus disguised he was able to get into William’s camp and overhear his plans. Eustace disguised himself as a prostitute and seduced one of the count’s men. Fouke once disguised himself as a charcoal burner and when he encountered King John and three knights Fouke told the king he had seen a long antlered stag and led the king deeper into the forest to find it. When they arrived at a thicket Fouke and his men captured the king. Similarly in the Geste, Little John disguised as Reynold Greenleaf captured the sheriff, but it must be remembered a Saxon did not have to be bad to be outlawed, although obviously many were.
(From "A Book of Medieval Outlaws" edited by Thomas H. Ohlgren, published by Sutton Publishing.)
Middle Picture: The Archbishop of Canterbury being robbed by highway robbers.
Bottom Picture: A man being outlawed into the forest.