A Few Medieval Outlaws

by Steven A. McKay

(This article originally appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog March 1, 2015)

Since the very beginning of time there have been those who chose to live a life of crime: outlaws, or, as they were often known in the middle-ages, wolf’s heads. Obviously the most famous of them is the bold Robin Hood who stole from the greedy rich to give to the downtrodden poor. But, as I found out when researching my novels Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven, there were plenty of others who, in their own day, were just as notorious as Hood and his mates and some of them might surprise you…

Back then, extortion and bribery were rife – you could be imprisoned on some trumped-up charge by a crooked sheriff or bailiff just so they could take money from you in return for your freedom, even if you hadn’t actually broken any law! If you had committed some criminal act, even a minor one, you could expect a fine you’d struggle desperately to pay, or some other even more humiliating punishment like the pillory. This was a wooden board that held the criminal’s head and hands while the crowd threw things at them. A butcher selling bad meat would be dragged through the streets on a hurdle before being locked in the pillory where he’d have the offending offal burnt under him. 1
And if you were a woman caught stealing? You’d be taken to the nearest river and drowned!2

No wonder some people chose to go into hiding and become outlaws rather than face medieval justice…

The pillory (burning offal not shown)

With so many being forced into a life outside the law it wasn’t unusual for well-organized criminal gangs to spring up and cause trouble for the unlucky people living in the villages and towns of England. John Fitzwalter, for example, who led a gang that besieged Colchester not once, but twice, holding the whole town to ransom. 3 Or the notorious Folvilles, a group of brothers who murdered a man and fled the country but were able to return – with pardons – in 1326, thanks to the help of Roger Mortimer. They robbed, raped and murdered their way around the country for the next couple of years before being captured. They simply joined Mortimer’s army and were pardoned again whereupon they resumed their reign of terror. They continued in this way for many years before, finally, their luck ran out, the law caught up with them and this time they were beheaded.4

One of the bounty hunters employed to catch both the Folvilles and another murderous gang, the Coterel’s, was Roger de Wensley. He managed to find the Coterels but rather than dispensing justice he joined them! 5 The Coterels were, like the Folville’s, ‘gentlemen’ who, as well as being vicious criminals, served in King Edward III’s army, were bailiffs and even Members of Parliament.

The funny thing is, like Robin Hood, the Folville’s eventually came to be celebrated rather than vilified by the common man. They kidnapped an apparently corrupt justice of the peace, killed a widely-hated judge and were, in the years after their death, generally seen as men who had righted wrongs. 6

Fulk Fitzwarine is another outlaw cum-folk-hero, this time from the thirteenth century and, although he was a recorded historical figure, he may have been the source of some aspects of the Robin Hood legend. Outlawed for treason, he rebelled against King John twice. Despite this the people of the time celebrated him in poetry and song, drawing in elements from Arthurian mythology – Merlin himself was supposed to have prophesied Fulk’s exploits!7

Medieval England was a dangerous place, even if you were a law-abiding citizen. You might be accused of a crime you hadn’t committed so some corrupt lawman could extort money for your release from jail, and, if you were a notorious, violent criminal you could be pardoned from the most heinous transgressions by making yourself useful to those in power. The sheriff in my novels, Henry de Faucumberg, was a real historical figure who had a criminal record for assault and, on more than one occasion, stealing wood before he found himself serving the crown as Sheriff of Nottingham and Yorkshire. 8 Justice? “…it is estimated that there were more outlaws at this time than at any other period in England’s history.” 9 No wonder – it seems like you could get away with anything back then as long as you had money or well-connected friends to help you out.

What interests me the most about all these accounts is how the outlaw – a criminal after all – usually becomes a romantic hero to the common people. The Folvilles raped and murdered for years yet a generation after their death they were celebrated as heroes poking a finger in the eye of the ruling classes. The original ballads of Robin Hood portrayed an incredibly violent man whose followers murdered an innocent child (in Robin Hood and the Monk) while he himself beheads the honourable Sir Guy of Gisbourne, sticks the head on the end of his longbow and mutilates the face with his knife! 10

What is it about these dangerous men that makes them so compelling, so heroic, to the common people, even when they’re clearly operating outside the laws that supposedly hold our society together? I believe it’s mostly down to the old idea of “sticking it to the man.” Everyone likes to get one over on those in charge, especially when the rulers are rich and you’re barely able to afford a crust of bread to feed your starving children. The medieval ballads sprung up around the Folvilles, Clim of the Clough (who appeared in a story alongside Adam Bell  11) and Robin Hood because they prospered in the face of adversity and gave hope to the common people that they too might, one day, break out of their life of thankless servitude to their betters.

Adam Bell, Clim of the Clough and William Cloudesley

700 years later audiences still enjoy tales of anti-heroes within literature and film: Batman and Judge Dredd, for example, represent the ultra-violent face of modern fictional ‘justice’, yet both are miles away from our Western judicial systems in the way they deal with criminals.

It seems our fascination for justice outwith the judicial system continues to this day. Maybe, eventually, the lawmakers will get things right – crimes will be detected, the perpetrators will be dealt with fairly and proportionately, the little man will enjoy justice as much as the wealthy, and the likes of Eustace Folville, Robin Hood and Batman will no longer seem so romantic…

Aye, right!

Judge Dredd and Judge Anderson bringing justice to the lawless in Dredd 3D

Steven A. McKay is the best-selling author of the Amazon “War” chart number 1’s Wolf’s Head and The Wolf and the Raven. The third in the series, Rise of the Wolf, is nearing completion, while a spin-off novella, Knight of the Cross, has just been released. All his books are also available from Audible as audiobooks.

To find out more go to StevenAMcKay, Amazon UK, or Amazon US

1 Mortimer, Ian The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, p95
2 Ibid, p219
3 Ibid, p240
4 Ibid, p240-242
5 Ibid, p241
6 Jones, Terry Medieval Lives, p63
7 Phillips, Graham and Keatman, Martin, Robin Hood – the man behind the myth, p115
8 http://midgleywebpages.com/shirereeve.html
9 John Paul Davis, Robin Hood – the Unknown Templar, p89
10 http://www.boldoutlaw.com/rhbal/bal118-gisborne.html
11 http://www.robinhoodlegend.com/adam-bell-clim-clough-william-cloudesly/

Robin Hood meets Odysseus!

Here’s a fun new Q&A between myself and Odysseus author Glyn Iliffe on the Edinburgh Book Review website, take a look!


historical fiction greek

Glyn Iliffe, author of the excellent Adventure of Odysseus series.

Wolf’s Head on special offer!

Yes, find out what the fuss is about for next to nothing. The UK Kindle “War” chart number 1 and overall top 20 bestseller is just 99c in the USA this weekend (starting Thursday)!

Click the pic to buy – hurry, before it’s back up to $2.99! And don’t forget to tell your friends, family and hated enemies.

Oh, by the way, once you own the Kindle version you can add the Audible narration (which is awesome!) for a greatly reduced price. You can’t lose!


How I sold 90,000* ebooks – some tips

People often ask me how I managed to sell so many books without an agent or publisher to help me but, sorry, there’s no simple answer. A good cover, a good blurb, some buzz generated before you even publish your debut novel, and good early reviews from honest beta readers are all a good start. But you need luck too.

However, I’m always thinking of new ways to market my brand and my books and these are some of the Kindle books I’ve read to try and get ideas. I probably got them all for free, or no more than £1, so check them out. I hope you find them useful and remember me when you make a fortune!

Twitter Marketing That Sells

This is the one I’m reading just now. I don’t find Twitter very useful but I’ve learned some cool new techniques thanks to this (using HootSuite to schedule Tweets and tweeting much more often being the main ones).

twit market

Reader Magnets

This is what gave me the idea to write a short story and offer it for free in return for people signing up to my Email List. It’s free! And so is that short story – get it HERE! 


5 Minute Marketing For Authors

Can’t really remember much about this one to be honest. It’s currently £1.99 but it will no doubt be available free at some point so keep an eye on it.



How To Market A Book

I don’t remember being blown away by this. From memory it had a lot of ideas I was already doing, but Joanna Penn has a great reputation so some of you will surely find this useful. It’s currently £4.99 for the Kindle edition but I doubt I paid that for it so keep an eye out and, hopefully, it’ll be on a Countdown Deal or freebie at some point.


Social Media Marketing For Publishers

Don’t remember this one either, but it’s short, and it’s FREE so you can’t lose!


Write a Great Synopsis

Of all the books on this list, I found this one invaluable. Seriously. One of the main things that attracts readers to your work is the blurb that appears on the back cover or on the Amazon page. If it sucks, no one will buy your book, right? But it’s damn HARD coming up with something short and snappy that hooks people in, and that’s where this little gem comes in.

There’s a couple of great techniques for writing that short kick-ass blurb, and I go back to this book every time I have a new book needing a description.

It’s priced at £3.83 and, to be fair, I might well have paid that for it but it’s worth every penny!



Those are the ones that are in my own Kindle library but if you have any you can recommend, please share in the comments section!


* I updated this today, May 29 2017, to take into account borrows from the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited.

Giveaway winners!

I picked two names at random from my Email List subscribers to win a signed book and the winners are….

Darryl Kidney in the UK


Greg Brown from the USA!

Well done guys. I hope you like the signed copies and Blood of the Wolf bookmarks.

And if YOU haven’t signed up to my Email List, what are you waiting for? I don’t spam it and you get chances to win goodies along with the latest news on my new books. PLUS a completely free short story called “The Escape” that is ONLY available to my subscribers and stars Little John and some angry Scotsmen…

Sign up now!

best free historical fiction

Get it FREE now – just click to sign up.



Knight of the Cross on special offer

Just a quick note…

My novella, Knight of the Cross, is on special offer this weekend as part of the Kindle Countdown Deal thingy. Only 99p/99c (I believe this will include other countries too but I have no control over that side).
Click HERE, or on the pic below, to go to your country’s Amazon page and check it out! Let your friends know too!

Blood of the Wolf is coming along nicely. I’ll be sending it to my editor within the next couple of weeks so it should be ready for publication – hopefully! – in August, depending on how much she thinks needs changed.

Have a great weekend and don’t forget…

Dagon is coming!


Audiobook reviews July ’16

It doesn’t seem like that long since I last posted some reviews of my latest Audible purchases but here’s some more. If you don’t already have an Audible membership I can’t recommend it highly enough – you can get any of these (or any of mine!) for FREE with your month’s trial, and if you don’t think it’s for you after that, just cancel.

Anyway, here’s the reviews:

Elminster: The Making of a Mage


I enjoy fantasy books because they’re a true escape from reality, often with a light touch, and this is very much in that vein. I believe this is something of a classic in the Forgotten Realms universe but I’m not entirely sure why. Yes, it’s quite enjoyable, with lots of magic and revenge and elves and whatnot but…it’s disjointed and almost reads more like a game than a novel. I had no idea what was going on for much of it, but that wasn’t a problem as the same scenario seemed to play out more than once. Or maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention.

Like all these Forgotten Realms/Dragonlance style books it’s quite twee and seems aimed at teenagers (and teenagers of the 80’s/90’s too) but there’s some sexual elements in this one that raised my eyebrows as they seemed totally out of place.

Overall it’s a decent listen despite the narrator sounding exactly like John Wayne in places, but I doubt if I’ll check out the rest of the series.

Rating 3/5

The Name of the Wind



Holy crap! This came out of nowhere for me. As I said, I enjoy fantasy but it’s often hard to find really good stuff in the genre as much of it’s very generic and apparently aimed at kids, but, I had a look on the internet and this book had a ton of recommendations. For one monthly credit the length is fantastic value for money so I had to give it a shot and, wow…I’m glad I did.

First off, as an author myself, I listened to this thinking, “Shit, I wish I could write things like that.” Little things here and there, phrases, lines, ideas that are so wonderfully written that it makes you wonder why you bother trying to compete! However, just to tone down the superlatives, I did think the story worked better when it wasn’t in flashback mode (as most of the book is).

That said, this may be the best book I’ve read/listened to in a while – I truly wanted to keep listening when it was time to switch off. The main character is a bit TOO amazing, with genius level skills at everything he tries, but hey, it’s fantasy and, as Dave Mustaine once said, the world needs a hero, right? His adventures are exciting and the cast of characters that fill out the world are interesting enough to make it all hang together.

A special word has to be said for the narrator, Rupert Degas. He uses different voices and accents for each character and they all sound fantastic, truly bringing the whole thing to life in a way I don’t think I’ve ever heard before in an audiobook. So not only do you have some seriously great writing, but maybe the best narrator around reading it!

I won’t say too much about the plot – it’s the old “young boy overcomes hardship to grow and become a great dude” kinda thing, with some magic and even a dragon of sorts. It could be listened to with children yet isn’t twee the way those Forgotten Realms books can sometimes be. There’s no swearing or sex and yet it still comes across as a proper “grown-up” book.

To sum up, I can’t recommend this one highly enough, it’s brilliant and serious value for money.

Rating 5/5

The French Lieutenant’s Woman



A strange one, this. Rather like the first time I ever read HP Lovecraft, I thought it was a big pile of crap and wondered what all the fuss was about. And then, days and weeks later, I found myself thinking about it fondly. Unfortunately, Fowles wasn’t as prolific as Rhode Island’s master of cosmic horror, so I can’t go back and immerse myself in his work the way I did with the Cthulu Mythos since I’ve already read it all (The Magus is one of the best books ever written in my opinion). But that’s how The French Lieutenant’s Woman affected me and it’s a sign of its quality and strange genius.

I suppose it could be called historical fiction but it’s not like anything Simon Scarrow, Bernard Cornwell or even I would come up with. Oh no, Fowles was never that straightforward. The main story here is traditional enough, I suppose, but the thing that jars throughout is the author commenting on what he’s writing and why and what he might have written instead, even the ending.

It’s bizarre, and it destroys any immersion the reader/listener might be feeling within the otherwise well constructed world.

However, like the previous review above, I found this book interesting from an author’s viewpoint. How many novels have you read in your life? Hundreds? Thousands? And pretty much every single one will follow the same template. That’s fine, and there’s a good reason for it: books are better when they follow that formula!

Yet The French Lieutenant’s Woman breaks from that norm and the author purposely intrudes just as you’re losing yourself in the story, not just once, but repeatedly. It’s a crazy way to write a book but I can only applaud Fowles for doing it. The guy wanted to be different from everyone else and he certainly was.

As usual, the ending isn’t what you’d expect or hope for, but anyone that’s read Fowles will already be expecting that and it’s another area where he differed from everyone else.

The narrator reads well and does a good job.

I can’t really sum this up because I’m not sure how I feel about it myself but I certainly recommend you read or listen to it. At least it’s not as horrible as The Collector…

Rating – ?/5


The Wyvern’s Spur


This is the sequel to Azure Bonds, which I reviewed in a previous audiobook roundup. To be honest, it’s more of a psuedo-sequel as the main character from that one isn’t even in here. Instead, it follows a fringe character from the first book (a poor one too) and a halfling sidekick who was in Azure Bonds but again, in my opinion, isn’t a great creation. So, while the first book had some decent main characters, they’re out the window here. Now it’s a couple of un-heroic “heroes”, one of whom spends much of the book as a donkey, and an uninspired plot that doesn’t really go anywhere.

The writing is, as expected, twee. Don’t expect any tasty language here – no “For f**k’s sake, Tyrion!”, instead it’s “Oh, bother,” and the female narrator reads it as if reading to a three year-old.

Despite that, I’ve enjoyed it well enough. If you’re looking for something very light that doesn’t tax the brain, I suppose you could give this a go, but there’s much better out there and it’s not as good as its predecessor.

There’s a third book in the series, Song of the Saurials, but I don’t see how it can possibly tie up all the plot strands from the first two and, to be honest, I don’t know if I care enough to download it anyway.

Rating – 3/5


Socrates: Philosophy In An Hour


As the title suggests, this is a short one. I don’t know the usual price, but I got it in a deal for about £1.99 and it was worth it. It’s not just a dry summing up of Socrates’s ideas – I actually laughed out loud in places. Keeble is a great narrator (he did a fine job on Cornwell’s King Arthur books) and the writing here is entertaining. It’s not the best book you’re ever going to read on the fabled philosopher, but it’s certainly worth a listen as it’s good fun.

Rating – 4/5


I hope you try out some of these, particularly Name of the Wind (I’ve just spent this month’s credit on its sequel) and  don’t forget – all of my books are also available from Audible, brilliantly narrated by Nick Ellsworth!


Knight Of The Cross-Audible-Front-des2