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The Outlaws of Medieval Legend; a Book Review

Updated on August 5, 2018

Nottingham' Robin Hood Memorial


Medieval outlaws modeled Robin Hood

Spring forestry was the traditional background of Robin Hood ballads, and outlaws' garments were colored traditional Lincoln green. Mounted steeds covered enormous territory. Robin Hood-like-outlaws sought their own Sherwood Forest for asylum against tyrannical lords.

Minstrel' songs popularized old ballads about Robin Hood. Class violence was a popular theme; Robin or his bandits killed men or children in difficult binds. Little John and Much, a Miller’s son, avenged Robin; a monk betrayed Robin's whereabouts to a sheriff, Little John beheaded the monk, and Much quieted a page by beheading him. Violent incidents were used in early primitive ballads.

Outlaws poached the king’s deer. They murdered threatening people for survival. Ballad construction conveyed a violent tone, a skeletal structure, and discarded the feelings of outlaws braving freezing weather. Fugitives set-up ambushes.They disguised themselves as cooks, potters, and fishermen. These are some of the themes covered in Maurice Keen's Outlaws of Medieval Legends.

Robin Hood is compared to numerous medieval outlaws. Keen introduces rebellious characters that became literary legendary heroes with a mythical aurora about them. Hereward the Wake, Fulk Fitzwarin, Eustace the Monk, Gamelyn, and William Wallace, intrigued historians with fascinating insight.

Hereward battles Normans

Illustration "Cassell's History of England (1865)
Illustration "Cassell's History of England (1865) | Source

Hereward the Wake lived like Robin Hood

Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, banished Hereward, who became the first English outlaw. He was branded like a wolf with a price on his head. Historians nicknamed him, "Hereward the Wake" (recognized as "Hereward the Exile" in his own time). He was a warrior and soldier. He rebelled against William the Conqueror and Norman' soldiers.

The Gesta of Herwardi, a Middle Latin Text written around 1109-31, revealed Hereward’s 1068 return to England. He defeated Norman' raiders and avenged his beheaded brother. Hereward's outlaws defeated French soldiers, and burned Brumeswald' families.

Hereward felt guilty about robbing monastery treasures. “Only a midnight vision of St. Peter, as a terrifying sage brandishing an enormous key, induced him to return his spoil.”

Hereward and Robin Hood shared compatible retrospection:

  • Forest lair sanctuary
  • Hostile rich lords and abbots
  • Wilderness survival
  • Future counterpart recycled Hereward's adventures; Robin Hood counterparts followed his pattern

Medieval authors lacked originality and continually recycled story incidents. Literary medieval outlaws defied corrupt establishments. Common people supported them.

Forest Law forbade the poaching of king’s game and restricted wide areas:

  • Cultivated land
  • Woodland
  • Waste

The Book of Ely popularized Hereward's battles a hundred years later. Tavern folk sang his ballads.

Hereward’s double nature

  1. Romantic hero wrestled huge bears and attracted princesses.
  2. Fenland robber was idolized by Saxon's.

Fulk Fitzwarin's heroism

Fulk Fitzwarin was a heroic outlaw from an English Whittington Castle, Shropshire. His life was romanticized in a French poem. He was an aristocratic knight, military adventurist, and rebellious baron of King John’s reign. His rival, Maurice of Powlis, influenced him to turn outlaw. Fitzwarin endured prosperous years during Henry III's reign.

Interesting dates

1202- Fitzwarin escaped from a posse from Stanley Abbey of Wiltshire.

1203- Fitzwarin was among 38 persons pardoned.

1215- Fitzwarin's rebellion hastened King John's Magna Carta signing: common people had certain rights, the king was not above the law.

Robin Hood comparison

Fulk inhabited Bradene Forest. In one story, ten Burgess' merchants pay king's money for rich cloth, spices, and dresses; Fulk’s gang robbed them.

Fulk lured King John and three escorts into the forest. They were surrounded by Fulk's outlaws. The king promised to restore Fulk's inheritance.

Fulk and Robin battled tyrannical injustice of lords and befriended commoners. Fulk opposed John the tyrant and Normans. Robin Hood opposed the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Eustace the Monk's famous roles

Eustace had a unique historical background. The Monk of St. Samer Abbey left his order and claimed his father's inheritance. He was a non-English sea captain serving England's King John. He also served Prince Louis of France. He was called Outlaw of Boulonnais Forest and considered a great commander. He defied a feudal overlord, Rainald of Dammartine, Count of Boulogne. He was nicknamed "arch pirate," "apostate," and "from a black monk became demoniac." He was also a renegade monk. He is closely compared to Fulk Fitzwarin, Friar Tuck, and John de Rampaygne

Distinguished magician

French poem reveals Eustace's two-sided nature :

  • Part 1- the magician
  • Part 2- a cunning outlaw quarrels with Boulogne

Mephistopheles taught Eustace magic, Toledo's Center of Magical Study taught him necromancy, a summer and winter experience seated Eustace at the devil's feet, “an abyss beneath the earth.”

Eustace perished at sea during the great naval battle off Sandwich, August 24, 1217. He was in charge of a fleet that battled French and English ships. Stephen Crabbe of Wilchelsea, a mariner, beheaded Eustace on the rail of the ship. A lance displayed his head; victors of Canterbury were delighted.

Eustaces' historical evidence out-weighs other medieval outlaws and he was a master of disguise.

William Wallace' illustration

H E Marshall's 'Scotland's Story', published  1906
H E Marshall's 'Scotland's Story', published 1906 | Source

William Wallace Scottish warrior

William Wallace, a muscular giant, was credited as distinguished patriot: In 1297, he defeated English soldiers at Sterling Bridge and ended a 10 year war. He opposed King Edward I, led Scottish forces into pitched battles, battled Gascony at sea, and served Philip the Fair of France. Scottish baronage supported England; Wallace's guerrilla war included peasant rebels, townsmen, and poor land owners.

An English monk called him "the Scottish Robin Hood" (15th century poem).

English records list him “public robber.”

English law forbade his self-defense plea.

Blind Harry, a minstrel, adapted his tales into a long book. Wallace's tales are violent; sudden death shadowed him. He died during James IV's reign.

Wallace shared Hereward's gift of foreseeing dreams and visions. Seers spoke of Wallace in their prophetic visions, they also had prophetic visions of Fitzwarin. Wallace shared Robin Hood's skill of archery in the forest.

The Tale of Gamelyn

The Tale of Gamelyn was dated from mid-14th century, an older manuscript references Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Description of poem:

  • Metrical romance intends recitation
  • Avoids chivalry and the king’s court
  • Landlords and peasants resemble Robin Hood’s people
  • Alliteration
  • Dour and violent tone
  • Gamelyn, a just lord, Chief Justice of the forest, upholds honor, respects his dependents

Gamelyn’s physical strength

  1. He breaks a man’s neck with one blow and tosses his body into a well.
  2. A manor door bursts open with his well-aimed kick.

Secret Life of Medieval Outlaws English Part 1

Historical background of Robin Hood' ballads

Robin Hood ballads are genuine guides and included incidents of popular taste: A lord abuses law and deprives a knight of land ownership, outlaws rescue their leader from a sheriff, the king grants an outlaw final pardon, county wrestling match exhibitions offer prized ram and ring, and Franklin mourns; a champion defeats his sons.

Recited ballads of unlettered audiences survived due to their popularity.

Ballad definition:

  • Lyrical and narrative popular song
  • Origin shrouded in oblivion of distant past
  • Surviving songs evolved from antiquated poems (authors often unknown)
  • Earliest ideas originated from folk belief; ballad makers evolved them
  • Songs were sung at unknown commoner's festivals and dances
  • Subsequent generations elaborated ballads and added story lines

Outlaw Murray, 1700, the oldest ballad listed included only 4 lines of verse and sparked narrative developments

Ballad makers utilized history, folklore, description, and incident.

The Gest of Robin Hood, a long ballad "pastiche" of varied material, echos beliefs and attitudes of vanished commoners. Unlettered people lacked documentation.

3 Main points of Robin Hood’s epic ballads :

  1. Only character’s deeds are judged
  2. Character of Robin is “impersonal and elusive”
  3. Exclusion of Robin’s outlaw origin

Robin’s earliest friends appeared in battles:

  • Little John
  • Scarlock
  • Much the Miller’s son.

Robin’s outlaws upheld his code of honor: the poor received their courtesy but wealthy visitors received a traditional costly feast. The Sheriff of Nottingham was victimized by their dinner invitation. He had to pay 300 pounds worth of plates. Robin robbed 800 pounds from two black monks in another tale.

Robin Hood Ballads II

Variation of mood illuminated the Gest.

3 early Robin Hood origins

  1. Story of Robin Hood and the Potter
  2. Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne
  3. Robin Hood and the Monk

Robin and Gandelyn, 1450, an old manuscript is an incidental and skeletal sketch of Robin poaching deer and includes Wrennock a forester.

Robin Hood' character disguises:

  1. Little John impersonates Reynold Grenelefe for Sheriff’s prize
  2. King Richard wears monk robe to visit Robin Hood in the forest
  3. Robin wore Guy of Gisborne’s jacket and saved Little John's life

Early Robin Hood ballads ignored forest romance and renegade friars; Maid Marion and Friar Tuck appeared in later tales.

Keen places Robin Hood’s existence in last two centuries during popularity of English medieval archery:

  • English perfected the longbow and it helped them defeat France, Crecy, Poictiers, and Agincourt. They first defeated the Scots at Halidon Hill,1333.
  • England's Golden Age occured during the 14th and 15th century.
  • Edward I’s Statute of Winchester required armed Englishmen to serve him in emergency situations.
  • Edward III set-up organized archery contests at festivals and holidays and it became their national pastime.

Other interesting facts

1350-1450, popular ballads during war conflicts didn't connect Robin Hood to specific political battles.

Often times, four King Edwards weren't distinguished by ballad makers.

Scottish border areas recognized Robin Hood's presence; Keen placed him in northern area. Robin’s main habitats were Barnesdale Forest in Yorkshire, and Sherwood in Nottingham. He also visited Kirklee, Doncaster, and York.

Medieval outlaw disguises

Eustace, William Wallace, King Richard,
Charcoal burner
Eustace, Hereward, William Wallace
A woman
Old woman with distaff
William Wallace
Reynold Grenelefe
Little John
Guy of Gisborne
Robin Hood
Robin Hood disguised his self in most of the roles listed in numerous ballads and stories.

Medieval outlaw popularity

Which medieval outlaw would you prefer to read about?

See results

Summary book review

Maurice Keen's The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, provides numerous examples of authentic medieval outlaws. Robin Hood's authenticity is constantly debated by different historians. Keen's personal point-of-view is supported by well organized analysis. During the 14th and 15th century, several examples of inspired peasant revolts substantiated medieval outlaws' demand for social justice. Keen includes amazing background stories about other medieval outlaws, too many to list in one article, a fascinating read.


The Outlaws of Medieval Legend

Author: Maurice Keen

First published, 1961

Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited

Broadway House, 68-74 Carter Lance, London

Printed in Great Britain by W. & J. Mackay and Co. Ltd. Chatham


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    Post Comment
    • rebelogilbert profile imageAUTHOR

      Gilbert Arevalo 

      4 weeks ago from Hacienda Heights, California

      Thanks for your comment, Mel. Medieval Outlaws is a fascinating study.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      4 weeks ago from San Diego California

      This sounds like a fascinating read. There is often truth behind our folk tales.


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