|Cause of death||Natural|
|Known for||Slaying of Sir Roger de Beler|
|Criminal charge||Murder, Rustling, Highway Robbery, Kidnapping|
|Parent(s)||Sir John Folville & Alice|
|Victims||Sir Roger de Beler|
Eustace Folville (died 1347 aged almost 60)[a] is credited with killing/assassinating the unpopular Sir Roger de Beler, Baron of the Exchequer and henchman of the despised Hugh le Despencer and ineffective King Edward II. He was the most active member of the Folville Gang who engaged in acts of vigilantism and outlawry in Leicestershire in the early 1300s, often on the behalf of others.
The Folville family
Eustace was the second out of seven sons of Sir John Folville, a respectable member of the gentry who acted on many occasions as a Commissioner or Knight of the Shire for both Rutland and Leicestershire. Eustace's elder brother, also Sir John Folville, inherited all of his father's lands in 1309 and kept out of most (but not all) of the law-breaking of his younger brothers.
Upon the death of the well respected King Edward I, aka the "Hammer of the Scots", he was succeeded by his son Edward II who did not inherit his father's abilities. Edward II promoted a young French knight called Piers Gaveston ahead of the existing aristocracy and his corruption and abusive nature meant that relations between the King and his subjects soon broke down. Piers was exiled but returned and was executed by Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster in 1312.
Gaveston was soon replaced in the affections of the king by another knight, Hugh Despenser the Younger. Despencer's greed and corruption became rampant and relations between him and the baronage disintegrated and resulted in the Despenser War of 1321-22, led by the Marcher Lords Roger Mortimer[b] and Humphrey de Bohun. This culminated in the Battle of Boroughbridge on 16 March 1322 which was won by the King and Despencer and saw Gaveston's killer, Thomas, 2nd Earl of Lancaster (King Edward's cousin), himself executed.
Some rebels were imprisoned such as Roger Mortimer (who escaped to France in August 1323) and Robert de Holland, 1st Baron Holand.[c] Others fled and engaged in outlawry; Sir William Trussell (who was to later become the Speaker of the House of Commons and was to oversee Edward's abdication) led a rebel group that raided in Somerset and Dorset in August 1322.
As the injustices continued, and the effects of the Great Famine of 1315–22 lingered, discontent remained. Despenser and his father Hugh le Despenser, 1st Earl of Winchester were rewarded with lands that had belonged to Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, including those in Leicestershire. On 14 Mar 1323 Roger de Beler, Baron of the Exchequer, Richard de Willoughby and William de Gosefeld were issued with arrest warrants for Sir William Trussell, William his son, Roger la Zouch (son of Sir Roger la Zouch, Lord of Lubbesthorpe), Ralph his brother, Robert de Holland, 1st Baron Holand and others who were accused by Hugh le Dispenser of stealing horses, oxen, pigs, sheep and swans from his parks in Leicestershire. The warrant was reissued in 1324 alongside similar ones that dealt with rioting against Dispenser in Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire by other rebels.
Sir William Trussell was forced to flee to France where he joined Roger Mortimer and plotted revenge against the Despencers and the King. Queen Isabella joined them in 1325 and embarked upon an affair with Mortimer, having been estranged from Edward II since he had left her dangerously unprotected from the Scottish in 1322.
The Folville Gang
The Slaying of Roger Beler 1326
In January 1326 Eustace led a band of fifty men to a valley near Rearsby and ambushed and killed the corrupt Baron of the Exchequer and ardent supporter of the Despencers, Sir Roger de Beler, who had previously made threats of violence to Eustace, his family and neighbours. An arrest warrant was issued on 24 January to apprehend those involved in the murder. A further warrant was issued to Henry, Earl of Leicester[d] on 28 February.
On 1 March a warrant was issued to multiple commissioners and named the suspects as;
- Ralph son of Roger la Zouch of Lubbesthorpe
- Eustace Folville and his brothers Robert, Walter and Rev. Richard Folville, Vicar of Teigh
- Adam de Barleye
- William de Barkeston of Bitham
- Roger son of Sir Roger la Zouch, Lord of Lubbesthorpe
- Ivo/Eudo son of Sir William la Zouch, 1st Baron Zouche of Harringworth[e]
- Sir Robert de Hellewell
The listing of the la Zouches of Lubbesthorpe first implies their leadership, which is backed up by an order on 24 March to the Sheriff of Leicestershire to seize the lands of Sir Roger la Zouch, Lord of Lubbesthorpe as he had been indicted of "assenting to and counselling" the death of Roger de Beler. La Zouch no doubt had a personal grudge against Beler stemming from the arrest warrant against him in 1324 as well as Beler's desertion from the rebels' side after the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. The Folvilles may have been mercenaries hired by the la Zouches but Beler's previous threats probably persuaded them that his removal would be a good thing in itself.
A further warrant on 18 Mar added the following names to the murderers
- Robert son of Simon de Hauberk of Scalford
- John de Stafford and his brother William
On 14 March a warrant was issued to Edmund de Ashby, Sheriff of Leics to arrest Thomas Folville for aiding Ralph son of Roger la Zouch of Lubbesthorpe, Eustace Folville and others escape from England. The fugitives fled first to Wales and then to Paris to join Queen Isabella, Mortimer and Trussell where they lost one of their band, Ivo/Eudo la Zouch, perhaps from wounds received in the attack on Beler or their subsequent flight from England. Ivo/Eudo was buried in the church of the friars of St Augustine, Paris on 27 April.
Queen Isabella, Mortimer and Trussell started their Invasion of England by landing at Orwell, Suffolk, on 24 September 1326 with a small army of about 1500 (perhaps including the recently exiled Folville gang) but were quickly joined by a very large number of people discontent with the reign of Edward and the Despencers.
On 28 September a general pardon was issued by King Edward to all outlaws provided that they helped defend against the invasion. The only people excluded from the pardon were Mortimer and the Folville gang, who Edward obviously suspected were intrinsically linked.
Opposition to the invasion proved to be almost non-existent and so many barons, sheriffs and knights joined the rebellion that they gained control within just two months. Both Hugh le Despencer, Earl of Winchester and his son Hugh Despenser the Younger were quickly and gruesomely executed by Mortimer once captured.
A pardon for the Folvilles was rushed through and granted on 11 Feb 1327, presumably on the request of Roger Mortimer, now the new fourteen year old king's Steward, and the new Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir William Trussell, just ten days after Edward III had been crowned as the new king.
Despite Sir Roger la Zouch, Lord of Lubbesthorpe, seeming to have been the 'brains' behind the assassination of Sir Roger de Beler, and providing the link to Sir William Trussell and the rebellion, Eustace Folville became celebrated as, according to the Leicestershire chronicler Henry Knighton, Eustachius de Fuluyle qui Robertum Bellere interfecerat ('Eustace de Folville who assassinated Roger Bellere') and is celebrated with the 'Folville Cross', a 1 m (3 ft 3 in) high fragment of an ancient crucifix, supposedly on the site of the murder, at a crossroads 1 km north-east of Ashby Folville.
The Fourteenth Century legal system included practices of vigilantism and retribution. Debts were often recovered using force, disputes resolved by duels and judges were only involved when all else failed. The Folvilles, finding themselves as 'heroes of the revolution' (at least locally, having saved their neighbours from the nefarious acts of Despencer and Belers), became emboldened and continued to commit acts of retribution and, as the years went by, found themselves on both sides of the law being repeatedly outlawed and then pardoned.
Upon their return to Leicestershire after the revolution they initially appear to have targeted Beler's lands at Kirby Bellars and elsewhere[f] but 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'.
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.
The Ransom of Richard Willoughby 1332
The justice Sir Richard Willoughby, another one of corrupt commissioners appointed in 1323 to arrest William Trussell and Roger la Zouch, was appointed to apprehend Eustace and his brothers Robert, Walter and John in January 1331 for allegedly stealing horse, oxen and sheep from Henry de Beaumont.[g]
It seems it took a long time for Willioughby to fulfil his duty and it was not until the next year when he caught up with his prey; unfortunately rather than capturing them they instead kidnapped the judge. Willoughby was ransomed for the large sum of 1300 marks and released.
The Folville gang did not answer to the charges brought against them and fled to Derbyshire where they "rode with armed force secretly and openly", allied with the Coterel Brothers and were sheltered by Sir Robert Tuchet, Lord of Markeaton.
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. In recognition of this military service, Eustace received another full pardon for his crimes. He was in combat again in 1337 and 1338, in Scotland and Flanders respectively. He finally died in 1347, 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'.
Eustace Folville faced such little resistance in his lifetime, and suffered no form of legal penalty, despite being known as an habitual offender for two decades. During this time he went wholly unpunished, unlike his unfortunate brother Richard. 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 Beler. Beler 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.
Secondly, and most importantly, there is 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. Beler used his office to seize land and siphon 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 William Langland's (a Midlander himself) Piers Plowman (c.1377-9), he 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:
"Therefore, said Grace, before I go, I will give you treasure and weaponry to fight with when Antichrist attacks you"
"And some to ride and some to recover what unrightfuly was won;"
"He instructed men to win it back again through strength of hands"
"And to fetch if from false men with Folvilles Laws"
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'.
- his elder brother John was born in 1286
- whose grandfather Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer had killed Hugh Despenser the Younger's grandfather, Hugh le Despencer, 1st Baron le Despencer at the Battle of Evesham in 1265 initiating a long running feud between the two families.
- married to Maud, daughter of Alan la Zouch, Baron la Zouch of Ashby
- who himself was to join the rebellion against Edward II and the Despencers in September 1326
- the la Zouches of Harringworth were cousins of the la Zouches of Lubbesthorpe
- looting of lands belonging to the Despencer regime was widespread in the year following the invasion
- Beaumont had been one of the few friends of Piers Gaveston but eventually threw in the towel and joined the rebellion at Bristol in October 1326 with a very large force
- Lumley2 1895
- Moor 1929
- Farnham 1919–20
- Close Rolls 1224–1468.
- Patent Rolls 1232–1509.
- Lumley 1895
- Fine Rolls 1199–1461.
- Nichols 1795
- Cal Inq PMs VI.
- Musson 2009
- Maurice Keen, The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, rev. ed. (London: Routledge, 2000), p.198: ISBN 978-0-415-23900-4
- 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
- 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
- Farnham, George (1919–20). Leicestershire Manors: The Manors of Allexton, Appleby and Ashby Folville (PDF). Leicester: Leicestershire Archaelogical and Historical Society.
- Fryde, Natalie (1979). The Tyranny and Fall of Edward II 1321-1326. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521222013.
- Lumley, Joseph (1895). Chronicon Henry Knighton I. London: HMSO.
- Lumley2, Joseph (1895). Chronicon Henry Knighton II. London: HMSO.
- Musson, Anthony (2009). Crime, law and society in the later Middle Ages. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0719038020.
- Calendar of Inquisitions Post Mortem VI. London: HMSO. 1910.
- Moor, Charles (1929). The Knights of Edward I. London: Harleian Society.
- Nichols, John (1795). The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester. Leicester: John Nichols.
- Close Rolls. Westminster: Parliament of England. 1224–1468.
- Fine Rolls. Westminster: Parliament of England. 1199–1461.
- Patent Rolls. Westminster: Parliament of England. 1232–1509.