Eustace Folville (died 1346) was the leader of a robber band active in Leicestershire and Derbyshire in the first half of the 14th century. With four of his younger brothers, he was responsible for two of the most notorious crimes of early 14th century England: no mean achievement, considering the same period saw Richard of Pudlicott ransack the royal treasury, and Adam the Leper seize the personal property of Philippa of Hainault.
The Folville family
Eustace's family had its seat at Ashby Folville, Leicestershire. They were landholders of some prominence. The family name, ultimately derived from Folleville in the French region of Picardy, is attached to several other sites in Leicestershire, such as the deserted village of Newbolt Folville. They seem to have gained most their estate at the beginning of the 12th century. Several of their possessions, such as Ashby and the manor at Teigh, were in the hands of other parties at the time of the Domesday survey, but had passed to the Folvilles by the reign of Stephen (1135-1154). The family were certainly well-established in Leicestershire by the mid 13th century. In 1240 a member of the family donated a large sum to the church at Cranoe.
The father of Eustace was most likely Sir John Folville, by all accounts a respectable member of the gentry. He died in 1310. Under Edward I, John represented Leicestershire at six Parliaments, and in 1301 he was summoned 'to attend the royal standard, with horse and arms well fitted, at Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the nativity of John the Baptist, in the prosecution of the Scottish wars'. He may also have held the office, ironically enough, of Deliverer of Warwick Gaol in 1277 and 1287. With his wife Alice he produced seven sons. The oldest, also named John, inherited his father's estates in 1310, and passed them in turn to his second son, Jeffrey. John is the only one of the seven Folville brothers who was not implicated in large-scale theft, kidnapping, extortion and murder.
The Folville Gang
Eustace, named for his grandfather, was the second oldest of the Folville brothers. His criminal career apparently began in 1326 when, on 19 January, he led an ambush against Sir Roger Bellere, in which the victim was cruelly murdered. Bellere was attacked in a 'small valley' near Rearsby, Leicestershire, apparently with a retinue of fifty men. With Eustace were his brothers Roger and Walter, and fellow local landowners Roger la Zouche and Robert Halewell. While la Zouche may have inflicted the death-blow, the blame was squarely laid with Eustace: the chronicler Henry Knighton, a native of Leicestershire himself, refers to him as Eustachius de Fuluyle qui Robertum Bellere interfecerat ('Eustace de Folville who assassinated Roger Bellere'). Even by contemporary standards the crime was one of extreme audacity, made all the more shocking by the standing of the victim. Bellere was not only a local nobleman of some repute, the possessor of some nine manors and the founder of the chantry chapel at Kirby Bellars (later to become Kirby Bellars Priory), he was also a baron of the exchequer, and at one stage its chief treasurer. The so-called Folville Cross, a 1 m (3 ft 3 in) high fragment of an ancient crucifix, is supposed to mark the site of the murder.
The Folvilles were immediately summoned to stand trial for Bellere's death. However, like many other medieval felons, they could not be traced by the authorities: they may have fled to Wales or France. They were declared outlaws in their absence. This new status seems to have suited them, as within a few years petitions were issued to the Sheriff of Nottingham, 'complaining that two of the Folville brothers were roaming abroad again at the head of a band, waylaying persons whom they spoiled and held to ransom'. In the period of 1327-1330, Eustace was either directly accused of, or mentioned in connection with, three robberies, four murders, and a rape. This last charge, it should be noted, may not necessarily imply sexual violation. The medieval term raptus is notoriously slippery, and contained a range of meanings, from bodily violence to abduction. The Folvilles also seem to have allied themselves with the infamous Cotterel gang. The Cotterels certainly gave the Folvilles shelter in their territory, the Peak District, Derbyshire. They were at one stage pursued here by officers of the crown, but managed to evade capture after a local informer warned them of the danger.
Various indictments from the period portray Eustace and his brothers as freelance mercenaries, hired 'by the ostensibly law-abiding...to commit acts of violence on their behalf'. Members of Sempringham Priory and Haverholm Abbey, both in Lincolnshire, seem to have made use of their services, and at one stage they were under the patronage of Sir Robert Tuchet, a major lord of Derbyshire and Cheshire. In 1332 the Folvilles launched what may be seen as a sequel to the murder of Roger Bellere, and attacked another agent of the crown, the justice Sir Richard Willoughby. This time the victim was ransomed for the sum of 1300 marks, close to £900. Willoughby was easily able to raise this substantial amount, and was freed within twenty-four hours.
A year after the kidnap of Willoughby, Eustace was serving in the armies of Edward III against the Scottish. He may well have fought at the Halidon Hill. Perhaps most surprisingly, in recognition of this military service, Eustace received a full pardon for his crimes. He was in combat again in 1337 and 1338, at Scotland and Flanders respectively. He finally died in 1346, a member of the council of the abbot of Crowland, having stood trial for none of the charges lodged against him. He is buried at St Mary's church, Ashby Folville. His monument has been badly damaged: a Victorian description states that 'the fragments of his helmet form the only part of his funeral achievement now remaining'.
For a modern reader, it may seem strange that Eustace Folville faced such little resistance in his lifetime, and suffered no form of legal penalty. After all, he was well known as an habitual offender for two full decades. During this time he went wholly unpunished, unlike his unfortunate brother Richard. But two factors may explain Folville's apparent good fortune. Firstly, the political turbulence of the 1320s worked in his favour, particularly in the case of his worst crime, the murder of Bellere. While this was undeniably an outrage, and at least partly an affront to royal authority, Bellere had been closely connected to the Despensers: he was appointed attorney to Hugh Despenser the Younger in 1322, and used the revenues of confiscated lands to curry favour with the family. Owing to the Despensers' proximity to Edward II, after the downfall of that King, official opinion had little sympathy for an ally of the family. In fact Eustace was pardoned for the murder as early as 1327, the same year that Edward was deposed, and again in 1329. Neither pardon seems to have tempted him back to a more honest life, but they did bring an end to the first wave of prosecution against him.
Secondly, and most importantly, there does seem to be a widespread perception that Eustace and others like him were basically honest and forthright, at least more so than the authorities that pursued them. This would mean that the justices and their clerks, reliant as they were on testimonies from local people, would find their job extremely difficult in the Folville's home territory. As E.L.G. Stones notes, complaints along these lines are frequently made by the trailbaston and other commissions: '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 laments might seem to excuse the commissions' own failures, there is undoubtedly some truth to them. After all, a tip-off from a local source allowed the Folvilles and Cotterels to elude capture in the Peak District.
This popular support seems to be rooted in a sense that the Folvilles were allies of the common people, combating the crooked establishment which oppressed them. There is at least some justification for this view. Eustace's two principal victims were certainly highly corrupt individuals. Bellere used his office to seize land and syphon money to his patrons, and his murder should be regarded less as a crime by the Folvilles alone, and more a conspiracy by several Leicestershire landowners. Eustace's accomplices were members of the Halewell and Zouche families, which suggests a breadth of ill-feeling against Sir Roger, going well beyond any one group. Willoughby was no more popular. In 1340 he was targeted by a second gang, who trapped him in Thurcaston castle. He was later imprisoned by Edward III on charges of corruption, indicted by several juries across the country, and forced to pay 1200 marks for the king's pardon. Eustace was respected as an opponent of such figures, even if this opposition was not his primary motive.
For the generations after Eustace's death, the positive view of the Folville gang only increased. In later sources they are not merely regarded as law-breakers, but agents of an unofficial law, outside human legislation and less susceptible to abuse. In the B-text of Piers Plowman (c.1377-9), William Langland, a Midlander himself, sees them as instruments of the divine order. While he is scathing about popular veneration of 'Robyn Hood and Ralph Erl of Chestre', he speaks approvingly of 'Folvyles lawes'. The crimes of the family are presented as correctives to the 'false' legal establishment, and the 'Folvyles' themselves are listed among the 'tresors' that Grace has given to combat 'Antecrist'. Langland states: "Forthi," quod Grace, "er I go, I wol gyve yow tresor/ And wepne to fighte with whan Antecrist yow assailleth...some to ryde and to recovere that unrightfully was wonne ('"Therefore," said Grace, "before I go, I will give you treasure and weaponry to fight with when Antichrist attacks you...some men to ride and to recover that which was unjustly taken'). Henry Knighton is no less sympathetic. He portrays Bellere and Willoughby as entirely legitimate targets: Willoughby's ransom is reduced to a less avaricious 90 marks, while Bellere becomes the aggressor of his killers, not only 'heaping threats and injustices' on to his neighbours but coveting their 'possessions'. Most interestingly, the kidnap of Willoughby is portrayed as a direct conflict between the two codes represented by the outlaws and the justice: Sir Richard is abducted as punishment for trespassing on the territory of a rival order, specifically 'because of the trailbaston commissions of 1331'.
For his contemporaries and near-contemporaries, Eustace Folville was clearly more than an acquisitive thug. He was something closer to an enforcer of 'God's law and the common custom, which was different from the state's or the lord's law, but nevertheless a social order'. Whether he in fact merited such a reputation is a matter of debate.
- The Battle Abbey Roll: with some account of the Norman lineages, ed. by Catherine L.W. Primrose, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1889), I, 17
- A History of the County of Leicestershire, ed. by W.G. Hoskins and others, 5 vols. (Oxford: Boydell and Brewer, 1949-64), V: Gartree Hundred, ed. by J.M. Lee and R.A. McKinley (1964), p.82
- James Norris Brewer et al., The Beauties of England and Wales, or Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of Each County, 16 vols. (London: Longman and Co., 1810-20), XII (1818), p.75
- Peter Coss, The Origins of the English Gentry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.268: ISBN 978-0-521-82673-0
- Dictionary of National Biography, ed. by Leslie Stephen, 63 vols. (London: Smith-Elder, 1885-1900), IV (1885), p.145
- Henry Knighton, Chronicon Henrici Knighton, vel Cnitthon, monachi Leycenstris, ed. by Joseph Rawson Lumby, 2 vols (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1889-95), II (1895), p.46
- Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2000), p.198: ISBN 978-0-415-23900-4
- See Christopher Cannon, 'Raptus in the Chaumpaigne Release and a Newly Discovered Document Concerning the Life of Geoffrey Chaucer', Speculum 68 (1993), p.75
- Keen, Outlaws, p.199
- Henry Summerson, 'Folville, Eustace (d. 1346)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ed. H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison (Oxford: OUP, 2004): ISBN 978-0-19-861411-1
- William Kelly, 'The Murder of Roger Beler, and the Laws of Chivalry', Notes and Queries II.VIII (1859), p.496
- Jens Röhrkasten, 'Beler, Sir Roger (d. 1326)', in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Richard Firth Green, A Crisis of Truth: literature and law in Ricardian England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), p.171: ISBN 0-8122-3463-4
- E.L.G. Stones, 'The Folvilles of Ashby-Folville, Leicestershire, and Their Associates in Crime, 1326-1347', Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 77 (1957), p.131
- S. J. Payling, “Willoughby, Sir Richard (c.1290–1362),” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman: a critical edition of the B-text, ed. by A.V.C. Schmidt (London: J.M. Dent, 1978), pp.242-3, XIX.226-47: ISBN 0-460-10571-X
- Knighton, Chronicon, I (1889), pp.460-1
- Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), p.149: ISBN 1-56584-619-2. See also Richard Firth Green, 'Medieval Literature and Law', in The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. by David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p.422: ISBN 0-521-44420-9