It’s Henry of Knighton who memorialises Eustace Folville in his Leicester Chronicle:
On 29 January, Master Roger Bellers was murdered in Leicestershire. The self-same Roger founded a chantry of secular priests near Kirby Bellars in Leicestershire … This Roger was murdered by one Eustace de Folville and his brothers, whom previously he had heaped with threats and injustices; and he was killed by three brothers when he had with him in his retinue fifty and more, in a valley near Rearsby. This man had been an oppressor of his neighbours, both those in religious orders and others, on account of his greed for their possessions, which he coveted to bestow upon his chantry.
The names survive in modern Leicestershire. Knighton is now a fairly select part of Leicester city, so we now Henry was a local man, writing about real local people. Kirby Bellars continues despite the unfortunate end of Lord Roger as does Ashby Folville. The latter picturesque villages are both in the present Melton District.
In 1331 the trailbaston judges sat throughout England, and many outlaws were made in every place. For this reason Richard de Willoughby, a king’s justice, was taken prisoner after Christmas, while he was travelling towards Grantham, by Richard de Folville, rector of Teigh in Rutland, who was a wild and daring man, and prone to acts of violence. He was led into a nearby wood to a company of confederates and there, under compulsion, paid a ransom for his life of ninety marks, after swearing on oath that he would always comply with their instructions.
Teigh remains in Rutland, the smallest county having been recreated in the last local government reorganisation. Richard’s church, Holy Trinity, is still with us and just as beautiful as it was in the 14th century.
Henry de Fauconburg was indeed a Yorkshire knight, three times Sheriff of Nottingham. Born about 1275 he too was a younger son (of William, lord of Catfoss in Holderness, who died in 1295). He too strayed into local banditry but was redeemed when he took part in the murder of Piers Gaveston in June 1312. In 1322 he fought at Boroughbridge, the crushing of Lancaster’s rebellion. [Lancaster, it should be remembered, was castellan of Leicester and by far the most important figure in Leicestershire and Derbyshire.] In 1326 he was ordered to track down the killers of Roger Bellers. In October 1330 he was Sheriff of Nottingham when John Eland, Deputy Constable of Nottingham Castle, led Edward III and his knights through the cave system under the castle to break into Queen Isabella’s bedchamber and arrest Roger Mortimer for the murder of Edward II.
The Cotterills were real enough, and the letter from the SAVAGE COMPANY is recorded by contemporary chroniclers. The sly lord Touchet and the corrupt priest Barnard are historical figures. Even at the time Barnard was believed to have had a significant hand in the murder of Edward II. I have gone with my literary hero Christopher Marlowe in the manner of Edward’s death. There were, of course, rumours that he escaped from Berkeley Castle, and some modern writers have resurrected the idea. Fictionally, the poker is much more fun. Academically, the jury’s out though the hegemony – that word only used in academic writing and which I was determined to get into my thesis just once – is that Edward was killed on the orders of Mortimer with the possible, indeed likely endorsement of the She-Wolf. Politically – and I have been politically active for a very long time – they had to kill him. If he escaped, whose body was put on display at Gloucester Cathedral in October 1327?
The Gresleys too were real; the bizarre backstory of Joanna is exactly as stated in SAVAGE COMPANY.
But are these people the real-life precursors of the romanticised outlaws of Sherwood? Certainly placing them in the anarchy of Edward II’s reign is more credible than the common association with Richard I, though the fact remains that Prince John seized Nottingham Castle in 1194 and brother Richard used the caves to dislodge him. The caves, incidentally, are much more interesting than the pathetic parody of a castle which is all the remains today.
The fact is, we shall never know. The Folvilles, the Cotterills and the Gresleys were all illegally active in the forests of Peak when Edward III seized his throne. Fauconburg and Eland were in charge of the castle. Historically the earl of March faced a different but equally gruesome death to the one inflict on him – I just couldn’t resist letting Eustace and Mad Joanna have a go. The Leicestershire Gogmagog and the lady of Drakelow were forgiven their many sins by the young king shortly thereafter.