Fugitives in Medieval England

Escape to the forest

As an outlaw in the medieval period there were few options available to maintain your freedom.

Men and women in medieval England who were accused of an offence would be summoned to appear before either a local or royal court. If, after the fifth summons, they failed to present themselves (or escaped from custody) he or she would be outlawed; in other words placed outside the protection of the law.

To be decreed an outlaw was serious; not only would all your goods and chattels be seized by the Crown but you could be lawfully killed on sight (and this remained the case until 1329). Fortunately perhaps, the declaration of outlawry only applied to the county where the crime had been committed so by escaping to an adjacent county you at least were able to stay alive.

The Sanctuary of the Forest

Nevertheless the loss of your property and livelihood meant your only real alternative was to flee to the forest or similar remote area, join up with other outlaws, form a robber band and become a ‘professional’ criminal. In medieval England for every person convicted of a crime, approximately another ten were declared outlaw. Little wonder therefore that outlaw bands became a serious problem.

To and try and combat these robber gangs special ‘trailbaston’ commissions were set up at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Named after the cudgel used by outlaws (known as a baston), commissioners were appointed by the king to travel the country on established judicial circuits to investigate serious crimes such as assault and extortion.

They were successful in raising money for the royal treasury through fines but they had a limited effect on organised outlaw gangs such as the Folvilles in Leicestershire. Such gangs simply retreated further into the wilderness until the commissioners moved on.

The Sanctuary of the Church

If you had committed a serious crime or were in imminent danger of being arrested for one, the expedient option to escape justice was to seek sanctuary in the nearest church. Should you succeed in doing so you could claim immunity from arrest for up to forty days.

Once you were on church property, and to confirm the right of sanctuary, you would be required to confess your crime in front of a witness. After forty days you would face immediate arrest unless you declared that you would ‘abjure the realm’, at which point you would be granted a further forty days to reach a port, secure passage on the first available ship and leave England – never to return.

In reality of course you were more likely to be set upon and executed by your patient (but vengeful) pursuers, ether when exiting the church or on your journey to the coast. If you were cunning or lucky you might be able to give them the slip and escape into the ‘greenwood’.


  1. Terry Jones, Medieval Lives, (BBC Books 2004)
  2. Ian Mortimer, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (The Bodley Head 2008)