Organized crime today is quite different from what it was a few centuries back, but it doesn’t mean that gang crime didn’t exist. When Medieval insecurity in England and the rest of Europe is mentioned, The Vikings are the most cited culprits. But even the civilized societies had powerful gangsters that made life difficult even for the kings. Some gangs were only known by the leader’s names, but the effects of their activities provide evidence of a vast network. They used this to advance their criminal empire, even with the help of the government. Law enforcement was also quite different from what we have today, but somehow, the law caught up with some of these bad guys.
As Usual, the greatest criminal gangs in the world start from family collaborations and the Waraunts, though not the worst were one of the most notorious Medieval English crime groups. They were a group of three sisters, Their brother and another relative named John Waraunt. Many Historians argue that this was a peasant family who just stole to survive. But others mostly agree that this was an organized gang with important links at the top that helped them escape punishment for their crimes. They terrorized Norfolk between 1321 and 1326 stealing clothes, jewelry, and household items managing to get away with it most of the time.
The first time they were caught was in 1321 when they were accused of receiving stolen property, but they were not punished. The Waraunts were accused again of stealing in the same year, but they managed to escape although John Waraunt was hanged for stealing clothes worth 8 shillings later that year. The four siblings, however, continued in crime until they were all arrested in 1325, imprisoned and tortured although they made an appeal and got out of prison in 1326. The record of their crimes goes cold after 1326, but it is believed they continued terrorizing the community for many years.
Richard of Pudlicott
He is the man credited with pulling off the most massive heist of medieval times and probably in all time from the most secure vault in the world at the time. He was not a persistent thief, but the organization of his group qualifies his place in this list. He was a former palace clerk for King Edward I until he quit and became a wool merchant, a position that put him in debt with Jewish money lenders. He planned a perfect time to pull off the heist, 1302 while the king was away in Scotland trying to Quash William Wallace’s rebellion. He started by planting hempseed on the exterior of the palace which provided the cover for him to dig his way into the king’s crypt a few months later. He also employed several accomplices in the palace security force to help keep his cover including William Palmer, the keeper of the royal palace fleet.
No one even knew that Pudlicott had robbed the king off £1000 worth off jewelry, estimated at over £30b today. Word of the robbery reached the king in Scotland when he heard that royal Jewelry was changing hands in brothels and on fishing nets back home. When he came back, his first action was to hang five members of the palace security, forcing an inquiry that brought in lots of people. Pudlicott was later brought to the hearing as a former palace clerk. He is considered stupid because he confessed to the crime leading to his being hanged and flayed. It is believed his skin was placed in Westminster Abbey as a warning to others. However, he confessed to all the crime. He also requested clemency for his accomplices, but the king hanged them all anyway.
Adam the Leper
Adam the Leper was more like Medieval England’s version on the Yakuza except his methods were bloodier and directed at the royals. He is famously known as the man who robbed the whole of Bristol City in one night. His vices included mass muggings, robbery, abductions, and extortion. He would besiege a castle with the help of his gang then order the inhabitants to hand over their property. His preferred method of coercion was setting houses on fire to force the owners out. He was infamous for extreme brutality with which he treated his prisoners, including mutilation and flaying whether their ransom was paid or not.
He also robbed ships including one carrying queen Philippa’s jewelry. His reign of terror ran from the 1320s to the 1340s when he was finally arrested. His gang, however, terrorized the members of the court forcing the government to “stop pursuing the matter any further” which allowed him to retire a rich man. He is believed to have died in the 1360s from natural causes. He also made the second-largest heist in those years from the king’s court after Richard of Pudlicott.
The Legend of Francois Villon would be that of one of the best French poets of all time. However, most if not all of his poems were either written in prison or exile. No one knows how many times this learned poet went to jail. He was banished from Paris most of the years of his life for his extensive involvement in the crime. His first crime was killing a priest in 1455. While still on the run from authorities for this crime, he received a royal pardon that allowed him to come back to Paris in 1456. On his return, he formed a gang with his friends and conducted a series of robberies including stealing 500 gold crowns from the coffer at the college which acted as the community bank. He wrote his poem La Lais (The Legacy) whose verses depict him in the course of the robbery.
The authorities caught up with his gang members, but Villon managed to escape to the provinces seeking refuge with the Duke of Orleans who later secured a pardon for him. He was arrested several times again. The most epic arrest was in 1461 when he wrote his masterpiece le testament in which he laments about the cruelty of men and failure of religion. After his release, he was rearrested for being in another gang-aided robbery and was sentenced to death. While on death row, he wrote his poem the “The Ballad of hanged men” Depicting himself hanged and his body rotting on the gallows. Luck or impunity, however, worked I his favor when his sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris for ten years. All his accomplices were again hanged, but no one ever heard from him afterward.
To the English, this early 15th Century Scottish Raider was a criminal and a heartless man that terrorized the Anglo side of the border robbing the English and attacking the King’s soldiers. He was a powerful raider and plunderer who hand a band of 160 men with whom he attacked royal caravans and soldiers. The noble Scotts protected him for the better part of his criminal lifetime, including Duke Robert Maxwell. His crimes were extensive as he was sometimes paid by lords to settle scores with their rivals even on the Scottish side of the border.
Despite having no lands or rent, Johnnie Armstrong enjoyed a massive following by the Scotts who looked at him as the hero that terrorized the invaders. It was tough for the king’s armies to neutralize his forces, even after the union of the crowns. King James V finally tricked him into a meeting promising not to harm him. He instead killed all his men and hanged Armstrong alongside 36 leaders of his gang.
The Folville Gang
It is wrong to be a gangster, but what if your gang is fighting for the king? That was the case with Eustace Folville, the second son of John Folville, a wealthy landowner from Leicestershire. Their eldest brother was entitled to inherit all of their father’s wealth. The younger brothers fight for the king, go into a trade or chose to become criminals; rather than work for the church. Their first crime was the murder of Judge Richard Bellers in 1326. A crime they never got paid for because they fled to France only to come back in 1327 after the Crowning of King Edward III when a pardon was issued. They became notorious outlaws in Leicester, but the king pardoned them in exchange for help killing a rebellious Earl. After fighting for the king, they pulled off a significant robbery stealing from almost every household in Leicester. Eustace and his gang were involved in a wide range of crimes including burning down the town’s watermill to settle a score for his monk friends.
He was accused of three robberies, four murders and a range of rapes, arson, and assault but was somehow never brought to justice. His most famous crime was kidnapping judge Richard Willerby, forcing the crown to pay nearly £500,000 worth of ransom in today’s valuation. He further forced the judge to swear allegiance to the Folvilles before robbing him all of his personal property. Their brother Richard Folville was later caught by the king’s order and executed after becoming a priest. However, Eustace continued to fight for the king even after becoming a knight. He was buried as a lord in one of the local churches.
The Coterel Gang
This was another notorious gang which at one time joined forces with the Folvilles rendering more than five towns ungovernable including Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and all of Sherwood forest. Like Eustace Folville, James Coterel, the leader of the gang, had an agreement with the King. So whenever he was not carrying out his criminal activities, he would deploy with the king’s army in Scotland and France. They Helped the Folvilles abduct Judge Richard Willerby.
The king ordered lord Rodger Wensely to capture them, but when he found them in Sherwood forest, he joined them. A commission to capture more than 200 members of this gang failed as only 50 were brought before the jury and all of them were acquitted. The group later assimilated themselves into the king’s army getting some members knighted.
Malcom Musard was like King Edward II’s punisher used to enforce the king’s authority on any non-adherents in Worscetshire and Gloucestershire. There were pending indictments against him by the end of Edward I’s reign alongside his three buddies. They had fled the country, so no prison sentence was ever served. He came back in the 1300s and sided with the new king as his enforcer. The king quashed investigations into Malcom’s alleged crimes and instead made him a “contractor.” The only problem with their relationship is that Musard enforced the law. Alongside his gang, they would rob these two towns, including Queen Isabella’s castles in the region and get away with it.
He was first ordered to recruit 600 archers into the king’s army, but most of them ended up as members of his gang after deployment. His reign of terror was from 1296 to 1330. During this time, he was accused several times before the king of theft, banditry, assault, and murder imprisoned once and even sentenced to the gallows but managing to get the king’s pardon each time. Most of his gang’s crimes were paid for by local lords against their rival lords. In 1304, he was paid by an evicted rector of Weston Subedge to attack the new rector. He wreaked havoc on the dwellers with archers who he had earlier recruited for the king’s army. He was also a known associate of the Dispenser family who was known extortionists who used all means possible to control the crown. That was why Malcom was considered a sword for hire that would turn to crime if he had no employer.
The Fitzwalter family was a famous noble family who held property in London, Norfolk, and Essex — duly instituted as the barons of Dunmow Essex. A heritage John Fitzwalter inherited from his father in the early 14th Century. Most historians label him as an extortionist and a racketeer because of the violence he and his gang imparted on merchants and farmers in the region. He seized property without paying, harassed traders and peasants and even started an armed campaign against his neighbors in a town called Colchester without the King’s order. He was too powerful to be indicted by the local jury. He also enjoyed the protection of the king because of his role in the king’s campaigns in France. In 1342, Colchester town retaliated against Fitzwalter by killing one of his gang members, an act that was met with extreme violence.
Fitzwalter besieged the town and blocked everyone from accessing the watermill. He seized all their property and recruited his Jury to conduct a cleansing of people he deemed dangerous in the city. He prevented all external access to the town and started starving the impoverished village. The king finally intervened by forming a royal commission which arrested and brought Fitzwalter to London. He was imprisoned in the London tower for a year then released on the condition that he would buy back all his property from the king. He never finished paying for the fine the rest of his life.
This man is primarily considered to be the inspiration behind the Robin Hood legend. He was born in Nottingham in the early 1260s becoming a loyal soldier in Robert De Ferrers’ garrison guard. His troubles began when DeFerrers sided with Simon De Montfort with whom they fought and kidnapped King Henry III. That ultimately made him an outlaw when the king sought retribution. He and his friends were declared outlaws as the king sent Sheriff after Sheriff to flush them out of the forest and arrest them. Roger’s Robin hood nature did not involve robbing the rich and giving to the poor. They raided the king’s representatives in Nottingham for food and valuables to keep the rebels alive.
He also had some friends among the local lords who hid him from the King’s search party until 1272 after he raided Stanley Abbey to steal horses and money. He was arrested and jailed at Nottingham Jail but managed to escape with several members of his gang before being recaptured by Reginald De Grey. He was later imprisoned in London towers from where he was released on royal pardon. But he was accused a few days later for hunting deer in the royal forest, a crime for which no one was willing to jail him.