Medieval Trivia: the origins of ‘Outlaws’

After such an idyllic wander round Savernake Forest last weekend, it seems a good idea to follow with a bit about some of the less popular woodland inhabitants: Outlaws.

Justice in the Middle Ages could often be a brutal affair, and the Saxons had some interesting ways of dealing with criminals. They did have a trial by jury system, but if a case was difficult or unresolved, they would often turn to God by putting the accused through the dreaded trial by ordeal. This involved undergoing one of a range of agonising tests, such as thrusting one’s hand into a vat of boiling water to retrieve an object. The wounded hand was then bandaged and then a few days later unwrapped for inspection. If it was healing, God had decreed the accused was innocent, but if not, he was guilty and could be punished – and properly this time!

Robin Hood.JPG

Robin Hood – our best loved outlaw.

However, in 1215 during the reign of King John, the pope put an end to this practice as he considered it too extreme for their modern sensibilities. Instead he introduced the concept of ‘sanctuary’. If someone was accused of a crime, they could run into the nearest church and demand to see a priest, to whom they could confess their crimes and ‘abjure the realm’. This meant they gave up their citizenship of England and vowed to leave the country for ever. They then had to walk barefoot, wearing sackcloth and holding a wooden cross, to the nearest port and talk a ship’s captain into giving them a lift abroad. By abjuring the realm, the criminal was putting himself ‘outside the King’s law’, so he became an ‘outlaw’. Now, what of the link with forests?

Well, there’s a lovely medieval story from my town of Buckingham, which goes thus:

Three reprobates murdered a local man, and to avoid punishment they ran into the town’s church and claimed sanctuary. Having seen the priest, confessed their crime and abjured the realm, they duly left the church in the prescribed manner, barefoot, wearing sackcloth and carrying crosses, to begin their long and arduous journey to the nearest port; Chester – some 128 miles away! However, when they were just a few miles outside the town, they thought ‘blow this’, threw their crosses aside and ran into the nearby forest. This was quite a common occurrence, and many outlaws absconded to hide out in the woods, just like good old Robin Hood, one of my medieval heroes.

Sadly for our three renegades, they didn’t fare as well as Robin. The law caught up with them and they were taken back to town and subsequently executed. So a beautiful woodland could be home not just to the abundant wildlife but also a fair few escaped outlaws, and during the Middle Ages it was never wise to travel along it’s paths alone…

Major oak

The Major Oak in Sherwood Forest, thought to be between 800-1000 years old. According to legend, this is where Robin Hood and his merry men slept. 



18 thoughts on “Medieval Trivia: the origins of ‘Outlaws’

  1. Very interesting, and as someone who used the theme for my four Robin Hood novels, very relevant. Interesting that there were also a lot of “temporary” outlaws – folk who were declared such but managed to get themselves back into society. I suspect that only the well to do outlaws managed it. And there were advantages to being an outlaw. Despite the risks, you didn’t have to do back-breaking work. And there’s some indication that everyone from lords of the manor downed turned a blind eye to outlaws in their midst.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks for reading John, and I’m glad you enjoyed this nugget of history. They are fascinating, and there is indeed so much to outlaws, their world was far from black and white. I didn’t realise you’d written as many as four novels on Hood – I’ll have to take a look!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Very nicely done – I didn’t know the detail of ‘sanctuary’ and loved the story. You’d enjoy a visit to Sherwood Forest, if you haven’t already. People find the major oak mean, moody and magnificent – but maybe not all that the hype cracks it up to be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mike. The history behind sanctuary is good, isn’t it? I’m like you – I love our rich heritage and enjoy finding out the stories and the origins for things we know today. I have been to Sherwood before, and agree with you that the hype exceeds the reality a bit, especially as it’s most likely not where the real figure behind Robin Hood actually hid out! Many thanks for reading.


    • Glad you found it interesting, Carol. I’ve been very lucky when it comes to ancient trees this past week, but I’m sorry to hear you’ve lost your one up there! At least it’s not gone altogether I guess. And although it’s not as old as the ones I’ve been talking about, there is the Sycamore in the gap on Hadrian’s Wall. That’s gorgeous. And it’s still quite old. Thanks for reading. 🙂

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