Robin Hood Outlaw Legend of Loxley
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Outlawry

 

Hereward the Wake escaping from an ambush, something he often had to do.

 

For people seeking justice around the time of Robin Hood the legal system was best avoided. New laws introduced by the Conqueror required that all Saxon freemen swore an oath of fealty (loyalty) to the king. Ten of these oath takers formed a tithing and they were obliged by their oath of loyalty to produce at court any wrongdoers. The sheriff administered the system and if the community failed to produce the culprit the tithing was fined and thus the community from which the felon fled suffered as a consequence.

If the victim of a crime appealed to his local lord for justice the accused person could challenge the complainant to battle. This was the equivalent to trial by ordeal. So if you were an elderly Saxon freeman whose son had been murdered by a young, fit, vigorous Norman you could go to the lord’s court, name the killer and find that the man who had murdered your son demanded the right to do battle with you which was not a very inviting prospect. More than likely the father would be killed as well although he did have the option of asking someone to fight on his behalf but where was the average Saxon villager likely to find such a person? If the father in the above example lost the battle challenge but lived to tell the tale then he would be deemed to be the guilty party and would be heavily fined for false accusation. As can be seen there was little point in seeking justice from the sheriff and there was no one else to appeal to.

Henry II made some reforms and we now have the “petty” jury. They did not hear evidence their job was to find out what had happened and report to the court accordingly. The accused could refuse trial by jury and as the trial jury might well include people who had named him as a criminal in the first place this might be sensible. However this was only putting off the evil day because the prisoner was held in gaol until he agreed to be tried, then later because this was felt to be inadequate even more pressure was applied to the prisoner who had to sit on the cold, bare floor, dressed only in the thinnest of shirts, and pressed with as great weight of iron as his wretched body could bear. His food was a little rotten bread, and his drink cloudy and stinking water. The day on which he ate he was not allowed to drink, and the day on which he had drink he was not allowed to taste bread. Only superhuman strength survived this punishment beyond the fifth or sixth day and some people were pressed to death this way. The advantage of this was that as the accused had not yet been convicted his property still passed to his next of kin otherwise the crown seized the property and land of a convicted felon.

The inevitable result was a deep reluctance of victims to accuse the perpetrators of crimes with the result that those in authority could do as they liked and get away with it. Because of this people feared the law and many of those who were summoned to appear in court failed to do so. If they failed to appear before the court after being summoned four times they were declared an outlaw and many people saw this as the best way of escaping the harsh application of these immoral laws. These outlaws were seen as the victims of an immoral legal system and the villagers and their friends often supported them by providing them with food.

 

Beverly Minster in Yorkshire was well known in the Middle Ages for providing ecclesiastical sanctuary. Hunted men fled there from all over England and once within the bounds of the Minster fugitives were given protection for 30 days while the clergy interceded on their behalf. This may account in part for the large numbers of outlaws in Yorkshire but if pleading the outlaws case failed then the offenders were handed over to the coroner who gave them a choice of either trial or exile.

 

Beverley was unique among ecclesiastical sanctuaries in offering a third alternative, the criminal might take an oath to become a servant of the church, give all his property to the crown and live within the town of Beverly for the rest of his life. Those who accepted were known as Frithmen. (Frith was a structure of social relationships designed to bring peace).

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