Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Friar Tuck alias Frere Tuk alias...

Trying to identify the inspiration for characters in medieval ballads and legends is usually fairly pointless, albeit a good brain exercise. Some characters, such as Hereward the Wake, Fulk FitzWarin and Eustace the Monk, were based on very real historical figures, while others like Gamelyn, Adam Bell and Robin Hood himself, remain a mystery.

Of all the pantheon of medieval English ballad heroes, Robin Hood has proved the most enduring, and attracts the most research into his origins. From that point of view, the English might have done better to cling onto Hereward instead of dumping him in favour of the Prince of Thieves. The former was very much flesh and blood, and is namechecked in a handful of references in Domesday Book. Jolly Robin, meanwhile, appears in no contemporary source save a few dubious passages in various chronicles, written by monks who were either working from existing ballads or deploying artistic licence i.e. making it up.

There is a good possibility, however, that one of Robin's companions was based on a real person. During the reign of Henry V, while King Hal was gearing up for another crack at the French after his smashing away win at Agincourt, the following entry appears in the court rolls:

Feb 9 1417 Commission to Thomas Camoys,Thomas Ponynges and John Pelham to arrest one assuming the name of Frere Tuk and other evildoers of his retinue who have committed divers murders, homicides, robberies, depredations, felonies, insurrections, trespasses, oppressions, extortions, offences and misprisions in the counties of Surrey and Sussex, and bring them before the king and council... 

From this it seems that the identity of the man 'assuming the name of Frere Tuk' was unknown at this point, and that he was the captain of a band of robbers who rampaged around Surrey and Sussex, committing all manner of horrid crimes. A few months later, possibly after some hasty detective work, a little more info came to light:

 Ho ho ho! The terribly amusing Friar Tuck...

May 22 1417 Commission to William Lasyngby and Robert Hull to enquire into the report that a certain person assuming the unusual name of Frere Tuk and other evildoers have entered parks, warrens and chases of divers lieges of the king in the counties of Surrey and Sussex at divers times,hunted therein and carried off deer,hares,rabbits, pheasants and partridges, burned the houses and lodges for the keeping of the parks, warrens and chases and threatened the keepers... 

...though he was probably more like this guy 

Frere Tuk and his boys were attacking royal forests, assaulting the keepers and trespassing on land held by loyal subjects of the King, before making off with heaps of slaughtered game. The identity of Tuk himself is still a mystery, and the strong arm of the law - not so long or strong in those days, with no standing police force - failed to lay a hand on him or his followers.

Unless they were gentry like the Folvilles and the Coterels, and could rely on calling in a few favours, it was uncommon for outlaws in those days to enjoy long careers. Most ended in a short walk and a long drop, but Frere Tuk seems to have been exceptional. On 12th November 1429 - twelve years after his last appearance in the records - he pops up again:

Nov 12 1429 Robert Stafford, late of Lyndefeld, co. Sussex,chaplain, or Robert Stafford of Lyndefeld, chaplain, alias ' Frere Tuk,' for not appearing before the king to answer Richard Wakehurst touching a plea of trespass; or before Henry V to answer that king touching divers trespasses whereof he, the said Robert,was indicted... 

By this point Tuk's identity had at last been revealed - he was Robert Stafford of Lyndefeld or Lindfield in West Sussex, a chaplain who for some reason had taken to outlawry and assumed the name of Frere Tuk as an alias while carrying out his crimes. The clerks who recorded his misdeeds seem to have been unaware of the name 'Frere Tuk', suggesting they had either never heard a rhyme of Robin Hood, or that the character of Friar Tuck was not yet part of the canon.

The fate of the real Frere Tuk, alias Robert Stafford, is unknown, though he was certainly still alive in 1429: otherwise there would be no need for the court summons. It could be that the long career of this renegade chaplain inspired a verse or two, and that he eventually found his way into the fictionalised greenwood, to live on forever as a rather unfunny sideman with a pie fixation and a drink problem. Glory, eh?


  1. Very interesting and what a great way to get the idea for a book. Impressed!