Sunday, August 19, 2012

Two Legends: Two Outlaws

by Elizabeth Ashworth

In the Middle Ages, an outlaw was a wanted man who had literally been placed beyond the law. Only men over the age of 14 could be outlawed. Women were ‘waived’ – although the outcome was much the same for them.

A person could be declared an outlaw in their absence by a civil as well as a criminal court, but most people were outlawed for serious criminal offences such as murder, treason, rebellion or conspiracy. Outlaws were forced to live outside society. Their possessions, and lands if they owned them, would be confiscated. No one was allowed to give them food or shelter. If they did, it was a crime and they were in danger of being outlawed themselves.

Probably the best known of all the medieval outlaws is the English folk hero, Robin Hood. The stories of his exploits have been told many times over the centuries from A Lyttell Geste of Robin Hood which was printed in the early 1500s to the more recent BBC television series and the film starring Russell Crowe.

The popular version of the Robin Hood legend is set in the year 1193 and names Robin as the Earl of Huntingdon, the trusted friend of Richard the Lionheart. Whilst King Richard was away fighting in Palestine, Prince John outlawed Robin and seized his lands, forcing him to live in Sherwood Forest with his band of ‘merry men’ and possibly ‘Maid Marion’. Whilst being ruthlessly pursued by the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin spent much of his time robbing from the rich to give to the poor and became the hero of the Saxon peasants against their Norman overlords.

The Geste records the story of an outlaw who lived in the forest at Barnsdale and who had many adventures. He gave money to an impoverished knight who was in debt to the monks of St Mary’s Abbey in York and later in the story Robin takes back twice as much from a monk who is travelling with some of the abbey’s wealth. He later enters the service of the king, but pines for the Greenwood and returns without permission to the forest.

The story ends by telling how Robin dies at Kirklees Priory. He goes there in old age, possibly because he is ill, and the prioress, who may be his cousin, bleeds him. Bleeding was a well-known medical procedure at that time, but because Robin has criticised the corruption within the church, this prioress, in cahoots with her lover Red Roger of Doncaster, allows him to bleed to death. But before he dies he manages to summon Little John by blowing his hunting horn and then he shoots an arrow from the window of the gatehouse and asks to be buried where it lands.

Although there is no compelling evidence that a real Robin Hood ever existed, one of the most popular searches on my website is for ‘Robin Hood’s Grave’ and, a short walk from what remains of the priory gatehouse of Kirkless, there is a grave hidden amongst the yew trees. It is inscribed:

Here underneath dis laitl stean
Laz Robert Earl of Huntingtun
Ne'er arcir ver as hie sa geud
An pipl kauld im Robin Heud
Sick utlawz as him as iz men
Vil England nivr si agen
Obit. 24. Kal Dekembris, 1247.

The gravestone was placed here in 1850 by Sir George Armytage II who was then the landowner and is based on an earlier inscription from 1631. The grave was originally discovered by John Leland, Henry VIII's librarian and chief antiquarian, who visited Kirklees in 1542 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He saw the grave and recorded that: ‘Resting under this monument lies buried Robin Hood that nobleman who was beyond the law.’

However, the earliest stories about Robin Hood are not set in the reign of Richard the Lionheart, but mention ‘Edward, our comely king’ which may point to these events taking place in the reign of Edward II when there was also unrest across England. A succession of very wet summers from 1315 to 1317 led to crops rotting in the fields. There was widespread famine as food shortages and high prices led to starvation. There were accusations of bad government and in Lancashire some of the local knights decided to take the law into their own hands.

Sir Adam Banastre and Sir William Bradshaigh led a local rebellion against their overlord, Thomas, Earl of Lancaster. In preparation for what is now called the Banastre Rebellion, these leaders and their confederates rode around Lancashire seeking supplies. This resulted in a man named Sir Henry de Bury being killed and his horse and other goods stolen. Sir William was accused of sheltering the perpetrators of these crimes and was summoned to court. He didn’t attend because by this time the rebels had faced a battle at Preston, on the banks of the River Ribble, against the deputy sheriff of Lancashire, Sir Edmund Neville where they were defeated and had to flee for their lives.

Accused of treason and also wanted in relation to the murder inquiry, Sir William was declared an outlaw. His lands at Haigh, which were his wife Mabel’s inheritance, were confiscated by the king and he was forced to go into hiding, probably in the forest around Charnock. If you ever travel on the M6 motorway you will pass a service station named Charnock Richard which is near to this area.

However a document dated at Westminster on the 21 May 1318 records that William received a pardon:

“Pardon to William de Bradeshagh, knight, of his outlawry in the county of Lancaster, for non-appearance before Robert de Lathom and his fellows, justices, assigned to enquire touching the death of Henry de Bury, knight, killed by Stephen Scallard and John de Walton, as is alleged, when charged with assenting thereto.” (Cal. Pat. 1317-21, p.145)

Whether he was still outlawed for his part in the rebellion is unclear, but he did not return home and in 1319 his wife, Mabel, declared that he was dead. The story of Lady Mabel and Sir William has been handed down over the years and is known as the legend of Mab’s Cross, which records that William was fighting in Palestine rather than being an outlaw. It also tells that Lady Mabel remarried, although there is no documentary evidence for this, and that when her husband eventually returned home she performed a penance for her adultery by walking barefoot from her home at Haigh Hall to a wayside cross in Wigan. The remains of the cross can still be seen outside Mab’s Cross Primary School in the town.

And, like Robin Hood, Sir William also has a marked grave, although it is more likely that this one is genuine and he is really buried in Wigan Parish Church where his effigy can be seen.

Elizabeth Ashworth is the author of two historical novels: The de Lacy Inheritance, set in the reign of Richard I and An Honourable Estate, set in the reign of Edward II. An Honourable Estate draws on stories of outlaws and sheriffs, the case of Sir William Bradshaigh and the legend of Mab’s Cross.

Book trailer
The de Lacy Inheritance
An Honourable Estate


  1. After the Norman invasion of England many men took to the vast forests and launched lightning stikes against the Norman forces. I have written about such a band in Wasteland, the second in my series of The Lost King.

    I suspect that these early freedom fighters may have been the origin of the Robin Hood legends. I also suspect that any outlaws would have been common men and not knights or the sons of a foreign aristocracy. It's a shame that the Normans stole not only English land and wealth but even their most famous hero.

    Martin Lake

    1. Here here! I'm with you 😊 Robin Hood the yeoman!

  2. Thanks for an interesting post, Debra!

    I've long been interested in the legend of Robin Hood - I must admit though that my fascination stemmed from the 1980s show Robin of Sherwood!

    I'd like to think that somewhere among the folklore and twisted tales lies the real Robin Hood. I'm sure there were enough outlaws at the time to give rise to the legend. I'd prefer him to be the Saxon serf, rather than the Norman land owner!

    Thanks again,

    Neil Davies

  3. This is very interesting. Thanks for a nice article 😊 However, I must point out that all the versions of the Geste that I have read show him asking King Edward for "leave" to return to Barnsdale Forest, which he grants him, not leaving without permission.


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