Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Medieval Mafiosos

Back on topic again, with the antics of James Coterel/Cottrill and his gang. James is another player in Folville's Law, a ruthless outlaw and accomplice to Eustace Folville, though he was also very much his own man.

The Coterel gang haunted the Peak District in Derbyshire and the northern part of Sherwood Forest from the late 1320s to the early 1330s, their high period being from about March 1331 to September 1332. Professor J.G. Bellamy of Nottingham University made a study of the gang and in 1964 published his findings in a paper entitled "The Coterel Gang: an Anatomy of a Band of Fourteenth-Century Criminals". His paper is comprehensive and contains all one might wish to know about this particular gaggle of charismatic medieval thugs.

Like his sometime partner in crime, Eustace, James was of minor gentry stock, his father Ralph Coterel having held a few small manors scattered about Derbyshire. Ralph died in 1315 and within a few years his fiery sons were making a nuisance of themselves. One of them, Nicholas, was an adherent of the rebellious Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, and received a pardon in 1322. In later years the gang were to work alongside the Bradbourn gang of Derbyshire, who had also been among the doomed earl's followers, suggesting that the Coterels were affiliated with those who opposed Edward II's catastrophic rule.

Whatever their political allegiances, the Coterels wasted no time in taking advantage of the collapse of Edward's government. Like the Folvilles and the various other well-heeled armed mafiosos roaming up and down the country, they enjoyed the profits of pillage, robbery, extortion, kidnapping and murder, though they weren't formally outlawed until 1331. By 1330 they had been accused of pillaging the estates of Henry, Earl of Lancaster (clearly their Lancastrian sympathies had evaporated by this time), were 'attached' (accused) of a spate of murders, and had formed alliances with other criminal fraternities.

Despite his long criminal career, James was never arrested. Shrewdly, he cultivated support from the nobility and the church, often by hiring out his violent services to them in exchange for cash and protection from the law. When the young King Edward III made a determined effort to stamp out the criminal gangs ruining his kingdom, James escaped arrest because he was warned beforehand of the approach of the justices by one of his hugger-mugger chums, the Prior of Lenton. The canons of Lichfield were also repeatedly mentioned as receivers (shelterers) of the Coterels and their wide network of followers.

Possibly realising he could not survive much longer as an out-and-out highway robber and murderer, James had the bright idea of eschewing actual violence and demanding money with menaces and blackmail. This has some correlation with the peculiar form of blackmail practised on travellers by Robin Hood in the medieval ballads, and like the famous ballad hero James Coterel would have had intimate knowledge of Sherwood. It's quite feasible that his career had some influence on the legend.

Such was his reputation and his links to the church and nobility, his victims usually paid up without him having to lay a finger on them. He also set to work currying royal favour, and managed to get his brother Nicholas appointed as bailiff of Queen Philippa's liberty in Derbyshire and Leicestershire. Nicholas later distinguished himself in this office by being hauled before the court on charges of embezzlement and corruption.

Having found a way of making outlawry a profitable business, James went on to purchase lands and properties and serve as a tax collector. At one point he was even entrusted with powers of arrest, though he was obliged to obtain a royal pardon for 'extortions, oppressions, receivings of felons, usurpations, and ransoms'. All in a day's work. In 1351 he received his pardon at the Queen's personal request, but his date of death is unknown.

So what's the moral of his tale? Crime does pay, unfortunately, providing you work hard at it!


  1. This is fascinating! I like the dresses the women wore in the 14th century but the lawlessness of the era, or rather the do-it-yourself law, makes me happy I'm here, now.

    I think? A great piece, this.

  2. Thanks Bette :) I agree, fascinating as I find the medieval era, I'm rather glad I live in the 21st century!

  3. Fascinating. I wish I had learned as much about history as you did. Perhaps I will make you teach me by way of blackmail.

    Yes. Yes, I think I will...