NEW MORE DETAILED AUDIO ESSAY:
In 1310 Sir John Folville dies, a respected part of the gentry and a commissioner knight of the shire. As per custom his wealth and land are given to the eldest of his sons, John. Leaving the remaining six to find their own paths. This was nothing unusual. The younger sons of nobility had the expectation to typically join the military or Church, just for the frivolous factor of order of birth. From king to knight it was normal. However these six sons where not content to follow the expectations that surrounded them. They twisted the expectations put before them, earning themselves a reputation as some of the most wanted men of the century. The Folvilles became England’s first powerhouse of organised crime. It sounds like the premise of a gritty piece of historical inspired drama that you’d see among the likes of Game of Thrones or Peaky Blinders. But the story of the infamous Folville family was a fearsome reality for the people of the 14th century.
Eustace Folville was the second youngest of Sir John’s sons and from most accounts, the mastermind behind their pursuits. At the time there was a few gangs operating within England, organised crime was not new. However, the Folville’s had something that set them apart from the rest. They were from noble stock. This meant their interests and ability stretched beyond robbery and extortion. They regularly served as mercenaries for members of the nobility for protection. It was an efficient resolve; they could be pardoned for crimes for military service. Many nobles had their own personal armies at this time, the Folvilles spread themselves out. Robert having served for the Earl of Northumberland and Eustace serving abroad in Scotland and Flanders. By extension their status helped them enter positions that allowed them to grow a powerful network warranted though their careers and contacts. Furthermore, wars and political discourse was at a peek during the height of their criminal careers. This worked in their favour as it meant that the focus of the politics and crown where squarely aimed at warfare or quashing uprisings. There was little time to deal with local crime efficiently.
A defining act came in 1326, in the assassination of Sir Rodger Beler. By this time Beler had become a controversial figure to the public and nobility alike. He had been allotted great power in law as a high sheriff and later becoming Baron of the Exchequer (1322). Having been accused of suppression of various shires and consistently investigating the conduct of sheriffs nationwide, naturally he made enemies. For the Folville’s the murder of Beler was a matter of sink or swim. Their years of crime had not gone unnoticed and Beler was now making direct threats against the gang and to add further insult he’d taken owner ship of most of the land in Leicestershire, the Folville’s county. Facing execution, jail or exile they made their move on January 29th as Beler returned to Leicester. They however did not escape blame, the investigation was assuming their guilt from the beginning, The tricky part was making the charge stick and track them down. Why? The political climate had created the perfect storm. Mistrust and factions had formed in the political structure that lead to mistrust and poor cooperation. By the time the law had caught up to issue warrants for their arrest and the confiscation of their land the Folville’s and their allies they had escaped to Paris.
Their return to England was yet another perfectly planned move as by September the political unrest had reached boiling point, resulting in the rebellion against Edward II lead by his wife Isabella and Richard Mortimer. With their military experience and influence Eustace and his brothers joined the rebel armies. Had the rebellion failed they’d have been executed. This is certain as Edward II himself named them as inexcusable, making it official in a decree that even in the event of a surrender they would not be pardoned for their crimes. Fortunately, the invasion was a success, resulting in the Folvilles being pardoned by the new office of Isabella and Mortimer. Don’t assume they straightened themselves out for this new regime. It was only a few months later that they robbed Lester (Town) taking £200 (£90,000 today) and continued these bouts of robbery over the next few years.
The next high-profile act was not as fortunate, making the beginning of the end. The kidnap and ransom of Richard Whilloughby in 1332. Whilloughby was another judge who was in pursuit of the gang, leading to his capture when on the road from Melton Mowbray to Grantham. They kept him moving, traveling the forests until Whilloughby’s, men agreed to pay his ransom of 1,300 Marks. Eustace himself left the gang shortly, thereafter, leaving his brother Richard to take the reins of power. Although Richard was experienced, had the same connections and a level of protection as being a priest (Even during his criminal career he had this position, often using the parish and position to protect himself and siblings) it was not enough to avoid the law eventually catching up with him. In 1340 Richard was trapped in his church, surrounded by men hired by a ‘keeper of the piece’, Sir Robert De Colville. Despite the efforts of Richard and his fellow gang members to fight them back it was too late. He was dragged into the churchyard and was beheaded. This was met with some controversy, being that Richard was a member of the clergy subjected to a violent lynching. Colville and his men had to be issued a penance consisting of whipping themselves at the district churches whilst reciting psalms in addition to the pope having to review the case for an official pardon.
We have explored them in a political compacity, but what of
their public image? There was nothing secret about the gang’s activity. On a
basic level of administration, the counties that they operated in were
frequently listening to the announcements of arrest warrants or proclamations
regarding their activity. Word of which quickly travelled among friends and
families in gossip. For all their misdeeds they gathered somewhat of a
‘romantic’ reputation during their tenure. This is most likely tied to their attacks
on controversial political figures. It’s not hard to imagine the people feeling
a sense of gratification in seeing the sheriffs and nobility they viewed as
corrupt being brought down by a peg. This reputation was only advanced when
they became involved in Isabella’s rebellion which branded them as heroes of
the revolution. Moreover, they likely played a part in influencing some of the
great literature and folklore of the age. Most notably drafts of Robin Hood
stories contain insight to how they may have been perceived:
‘..and fechen it for false men
with Folvyles law…”
‘and fix it for false men
with Folvilles law…’
– Robyn Hood and Ralph Erl of Chestre’, Peirs Plowman, 1377
This clearly suggests that the gang where perceived as somewhat justified to their contemporise. Perhaps even gaining a more forgiving image in the years after in rose tinted hindsight. For this instance, at least they are viewed much like Robin Hood himself, fighting against the ‘false men’ that occupied the political and legal system. They became viewed as pinnacles of unofficial law against those who used their power to suppress. The idea of the brothers as trilling story of rouges was also built upon in the 19th century when the flourishing empire sought to promote cultural history and native legends, leading to a revival of the promotion of the romantism of knighthood and figures such as Robin hood and other real outlaws. These outlaws became subjects of philanthropic Virtue.
Furthermore Eustace enjoyed a whole new reputation in his final years. When he left his position as leader of the gang, he joined the King’s army. Serving for several years as a soldier. Somewhat ironically lining up with the conventical fate of a nobles second born. This service allowed him to be pardoned for his crimes. By the time of his death in 1347 he had received multiple honours in addition to a knighthood.
Is this reputation warranted? Although it’s tempting to fall into believing this noble glamorous legend of a band of rouges seeking justice it would be wistful thinking. The Folville’s where not outright seekers of justice or what was right for the people. They were career criminals who’s actions fell into line with their own interests. The fact that they line up with dismantling unpopular figures or corruption is simply convenience on their part and only a small part of their catalog of crime, robbery and pillaging being the bulk of their deeds. The sheriff of Nottingham in 1327 is one such example of how the legal system of their time viewed them, stating in a report to court that “Robert and Simon de Folville, with a band of malefactors, were roaming abroad in search of victims to beat, wound, and hold to ransom”.
In this sense became coincidental ‘hero’s’ to those who wanted to create them rather than intentional ones. The perception of figures in our history is certainly to be approached with caution, as its constantly subject to change and embellishment.