Outlaws in Hathersage
The Real Little John? The Bradburns in Yorkshire were an outlaw band who had among their number a certain "JOHN THE LITTLE." Other outlaw bands with whom they formed alliances were Roger-le-Sauvage whose manor lay in Sherwood Forest, the Folvilles who were active in Leicestershire and Derbyshire and the notorious Cotterel gang who terrorised Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
Due to the system of inheritance where everything passed to the eldest son, many young men had to find other ways of making money. Becoming an outlaw was one option with the consequence that many outlaw gangs were of noble birth. The Cotterils and the Folvilles were two such gangs each having their own lieutenants, recruits, organisation, division of labour, maintainers, and laws. These were no common criminals but "gentlemen," who, when they were not committing crimes such as robbery, extortion, and murder, often by hire, were serving in Edward III's wars in Scotland and France. Some of these outlaws held public office. Richard Folville was the rector of Teigh while others were bailiffs and M.Ps.
These educated younger sons of the landed gentry attracted men of many ranks united in their antipathy to the Duchy of Lancaster and won the sympathies of highborn gentry who sometimes hired them for private raids. Another of Coterelís associates was a priest called Robert Bernard who was the vicar of nearby Bakewell in Derbyshire that came under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Robert Bernard had a background of imprisonment for intrigue with Edward IIís Queen Isabella and was suspected of involvement in the murder of Edward II in 1327. Despite their nefarious activities, James Cotterel obtained the wardship of a rich widow at Tideswell in the Royal Forest of the Peak, while his younger brother, Nicholas, was the bailiff of Edward IIIís Queen Philippa who was a major landowner in the Royal Forest of the Peak. A notable ally of the Cotteril Gang was no less a person than the Sheriff of Nottingham himself, Sir Robert Ingram.
The Folvilles were closely allied with the infamous Cotterel gang who gave them shelter in their territory of the Peak District in Derbyshire where they were pursued by officers of the crown. They escaped capture thanks to a local informer who warned them of the danger. Hathersage, where Little John is said to be buried lay in the region of the Cotterel gangís activities and it was the Folville gang who murdered the chief Lord of Hathersage and baron of the exchequer Roger-de-Bellers near his Lestershire manor in retaliation for his investigation into their activities that had been ordered by the chief justices. However it was the new Lord of Hathersage Nicholas-de-Longford, as one of the law officers commissioned by the Crown, who finally put an end to the gangs activities in 1333AD.
The Coterelís ignored summonses to the courts but by 20 March 1331AD they were on the run and outlawed. For the last eighteen months of their existence the gang rampaged and robbed throughout the Royal Forest of the Peak and although Cotterel was still an attractive figure to some he was reduced to wandering in the Peak Forest with 20 followers and it is almost certain they sheltered in the caves near Castleton, five miles west of the Hathersage parish border. Gradually the efforts of the Justices began to yield results as a steady stream Coterelís followers were hauled before the justices although James Coterel and his brother Nicholas never stood trial. Nicholas was selected to lead 60 men to the wars in Scotland but he appropriated their pay fund and disappeared: James Coterel, still in touch with Lichfield Cathedral, went on to become an administrator for the Crown. His associates, the Foljambes, Gresleys and Bradburns became respected landed gentry within a few years.
Both the Folvilles and the Coterel gang were seen as the allies of the common people, combating the crooked establishment which oppressed them and as a result they enjoyed the support of the people who would not witness against them in court. Eustace Folville was seen by the people as an enforcer of God's law and the common custom, which was different from the state's or the lord's law. In the B-text of Piers Plowman (c.1377-9), William Langland, a Midlander himself, sees them as instruments of the divine order. While Langland is scathing about the popular veneration of 'Robyn Hood and Ralph Earl of Chestre', he speaks approvingly of 'Folvilles laws' and the crimes of the family are presented as correctives to the 'false' legal establishment.
Top picture: One of the caves in Castleton. This cave is called the "Devil's Arse".
Bottom Picture: The Folville Cross in Leicestershire, said to mark the site of Sir Roger Bellere's murder in 1326. Photo, Bob Trubshaw.