Chapter 2. The Coterel Gang

The first real reference to the Coterel Gang comes on 2 August 1328.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.699

Because they failed to appear in court on 20 March 1331 the Coterels were outlawed.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.702

Undoubtedly James was the leader of the gang, for all the juries which later accused him referred to his organisation as the society of James Coterel..

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, pp. 699-700

As he wandered through the Peak District and through Sherwood Forest James Coterel apparently became an attractive figure: the names of twenty recruits to his band are given by the jurors of the High Peak hundred alone..

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.705

At least four members of the Coterel family were involved in what were officially criminal activities in the Sherwood Forest area in the period 1328 to 1333, but James, John and Nicholas Coterel were never brought to book. Indeed, in November 1336 James was commissioned to arrest a Leicestershire parson accused of illegal activity, and Nicholas became Queen Philippa's bailiff for the High Peak and lead an army of archers into Scotland. Laurence Coterel was less fortunate, he was killed by Roger de Wennesley in March 1330.

Thomas Ifel of Stafford struck Laurence Coterel on the head with his sword. Roger Wennesley then struck Coterel with a knife, per medium gutteris, from which he died: Assize Roll 166 m.21.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.702, and footnote 2

Despite this, Wennesley apparently joined the Coterel Gang.

It was hoped to bring to trial Roger de Wennesley, lord of Mappleton, who had been commanded to arrest the Coterels in December 1330 but who instead had joined the outlaws.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.710

There is nothing fictional in the history the Coterel Gang, references to the original records of the day are given throughout Bellamy's article. Nor were the Coterels poor peasants, they held significant amounts of land and even, on one at least occasion, continued to receive their rents whilst outlawed and living in the forest. Bellamy quotes from the Middleton MS.

It was Walter Aune, brother of Sir William, who brought them the Stainsby rents and victuals: Assize Roll 1411b m.6.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.702, footnote 6

In summary then, James, the leader of the gang, and his brother John were younger sons of Ralph Coterel who died shortly before the 16th. of August, 1315. Nicholas Coterel was probably also a brother of James. Laurence Coterel was obviously one of the same family, possibly a brother of Ralph. Ralph held lands in Tadington, Priestcliffe, Chelmorton, Flagh, Toustedes, Cromford and Matlock. This was not a poor family.

The Coterel brothers were probably younger brothers, but they were not penniless: on 28 July 1329 Nicholas was able to purchase the marriage of John Basset ...... for a fine of £56 13s. 4d. His brother James was given the wardship of the lands of Elizabeth, widow of Thomas Meverel, by Queen Philippa; this occurred, most remarkably, on 23 May 1332 when Coterel [was] still an outlaw.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.715

Despite the family possessions, it appears that James Coterel had discovered a way to make outlawry a very profitable business. The tales of Robin Hood stress repeatedly that Robin and his gang of Merrie Men persistently robbed the rich but generally refrained from murder. The records of the Coterel Gang robbing the rich are many, and “from the autumn of that year [1331] it seems to have been accepted policy to eschew violence” (Bellamy, p.705). To quote only a few of the many examples, a jury in Derby recorded that James Coterel took 100s. from Ralph Murimouth at Bakewell; £20 was demanded of William Amyas, mayor of Nottingham; £40 was the “fine” demanded from Sir Geoffrey Luttrell to be paid to la compagnie sauvage ; William de Birchover was assessed at £20; and John de Staniclyf was imprisoned by the gang and only released on a bond of £20. To get some idea of the value of these amounts at that time, in 1315 Ralph Coterel owned a messuage and two bovates held in chief in Tadinton and Priestcliffe by service of 10s. yearly, little more than one percent of the fine imposed on Luttrell. Again, James Coterel was granted one third of the manor of Tideswell by Queen Philippa at 20s. yearly on 23 May 1332 (a time when he was still an outlaw!) Another interesting example is given by Bellamy.

On 14 January 1332 Sir Richard de Wylughby, a puisne justice of the king's bench and son of Sir Richard de Wylughby the elder, chief justice of the common pleas in Ireland, was captured by outlaws ...... the Coterels. ...... the ransom money was shared out among the criminals in Markeaton Park (Derbys.) on 2 February 1332.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.707

It seems perfectly clear that the Coterels, like Robin Hood, stole primarily from the rich—not surprisingly perhaps, there would be little to be gained from robbing the poor. What does point to the importance and power of the gang was that they were more than happy to prey upon the very rich and powerful. We find no evidence of them giving to the poor as Robin Hood is reputed to have done, but if they did, it would have been very unlikely to have left any entries in the county records. Of the 1300 marks ransom for Sir Richard de Wylughby, only 340 are recorded as shared by the gang. Bellamy speculates that some of the remaining 960 might may have gone to the gang's backers like Sir Robert Tuchet, lord of Markeaton and Ashwell. Just conceivably some might also have gone to the poor.

Friar Tuck was an important member of Robin Hood's merry men, and the Coterel Gang also included members of the clergy; two were found guilty by a civil jury at Bakewell and only escaped sentence by pleading their clergy. At that time members of the clergy could only be tried by an ecclesiastical court. At York they pleaded innocence under oath and were free again.

Master Robert Bernard and another clerical member of Coterel's band pleaded their clergy ...... [they were] committed to the keeping of the officers of the archbishop of York. They later purged themselves by oath.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.710

Bernard had a varied and somewhat dubious reputation. He appears as the instigator of the Coterel's attack upon Walter Can, vicar of Bakewell on 2 August 1328. Bernard had been vicar of Bakewell himself in 1327, but had been removed on papal mandate by the bishop of Lichfield on 1 June 1328 after he was found to have stolen from church funds. He had also been a clerk of Chancery, a teacher at Oxford University, vicar of Edith Weston in Rutland and Registrar of Lichfield cathedral, where he failed four times to pay relief to the poor, and had only been released from Oxford gaol in 1326.

The Coterel Gang appears to have been very mobile, their activities are recorded as far north as Yorkshire and as far south as Leicestershire and Rutland. It would seem that Coterel never stayed more than a month in any one place though he periodically revisited the places where he was most assured of a friendly welcome: these were Bakewell, Derbyshire (the canons of Lichfield), Gringley, Nottinghamshire (Sir William Aune), Mackworth and Markeaton (Sir Robert and Edmund Tuchet.) The gang certainly had strong support from both the church and from wealthy local knights. Seven canons of Lichfield cathedral dean and chapter were accused of supporting the gang, Sir William Aune protected them in Nottinghamshire, and they had support from Sir William de Chetulton and Sir John de Legh, and “no fewer than four bailiffs of the High Peak ...... were of continuous assistance to Coterel and his followers” (Bellamy, p.709). There is no record of the gang poaching deer in the royal forest of Sherwood as Robin Hood is reputed to have done, but the gang was large and had to live. To some extent they relied upon local support providing food, implying considerable local approval of their activities, but living in the forest it is unlikely they would refuse the chance of excellent game.

Nicholas Taddington brought victuals for James Coterel to Bakewell and took them to Great Shardlow wood, Sheldon parish and elsewhere when desired.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.702, footnote 6

The large number of those who were said by the juries to have received and maintained them (fifty seven at Bakewell and Mackworth alone) need occasion little surprise.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.703

In the spring of 1332, the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Rutland were visited by the Chief Justice of Common Pleas, William de Herle, the Chief Justice of the King's bench, Geoffrey le Scrope and other important men of law. It seems likely that it was the activities of the Coterel Gang which inspired this enquiry. However,

The Coterels and their adherents had little trouble in avoiding arrest, for the prior of Lenton informed James Coterel of the arrival of Richard Grey, the leading keeper, while Sir Robert Ingram gave similar warning to John Coterel ...... by means of a letter.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.709

All the best Robin Hood films have scenes of the Merry Men armed and galloping to the rescue or attack of someone or somewhere, and there is a similar report of the Coterel Gang from Bakewell.

Bakewell jurors who summed up what other juries told of less aptly: the Coterels and their confederates, they stated, rode armed publicly and secretly in manner of war by day and night.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.702

How big was the Coterel Gang?

On 26 November 1332 the sheriff of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire was ordered to exact from county court to county court no fewer than two hundred men including the canons of Lichfield, the hard core and the hangers on of the Coterel and the Folville gangs.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.710

So far I have made no mention of the Folville gang. They operated primarily further south in Leicestershire, but were known to associate with the Coterel Gang. Rather than one large monolithic gang, the evidence points to a number of lesser gangs under the overall control of James Coterel

The Derbyshire juries saw him as the leader of such a notorious criminal as Eustace Folville when the latter associated himself with the Coterels during his enforced absences from his native shire [Leicestershire].

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.700

It is quite clear that the Coterel Gang was operating on a major scale in the Sherwood Forest area over the period 1328-1333, and that there was little rivalry with other gangs, the Coterels dominated the scene. This was about 20 years prior to the production of the first version of the Gest of Robyn Hode . It is also clear that although the Coterels were outlawed, they enjoyed very considerable support from the church (Lichfield), and the locals, both peasants and gentry. They provided a focus for the unrest of the peasantry which was to erupt later into the century in the peasants rebellion of 1381, and they were powerful enough to avoid arrest or conviction.

It does not appear that James, John and Nicholas Coterel or their able lieutenant Roger le Sauvage were ever brought to book, nor indeed was the Lichfield chapter.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.711

Rather than operating as thieves, the Coterel Gang found other ways to raise money, they provided a service to church and gentry

The Coterels were probably hired by the clergy and by the local gentry ...... because they were more proficient ...... than were other men.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.717

The gang was successful and they enjoyed support from the highest in the land.

Coterel attracted new adherents because he found a way to make outlawry a most profitable business.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p705

The impression is given that in many quarters the gang was not only respected but reluctantly admired.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p717

The number of men who sat at some time in parliament either for shire or for borough and who had close connections with the Coterels is quite notable. ...... James Coterel received assistance ...... from no fewer than seven such men.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.716

Convictions of members of the Coterel Gang seem to have been extremely difficult it not absolutely impossible, but when they themselves were victims of criminal acts, convictions came easily.

significantly ...... a Derbyshire conviction ...... is that of Robert del Ile de Wight, who was accused od burling the house of William de Bucstones, a close henchman of the Coterels.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.717

Much of the success of the Coterel Gang must be attributed to James Coterel himself. he was obviously a born leader who could command allegiance, he was able to gain support from the major gentry, he commanded respect from all, he was popular enough (and careful) to avoid the penalties of the law, he had great organisational abilities and he was a competent businessman who quickly saw that it paid to avoid actual violence. And finally, as his fame reached its zenith, he turned around and made his peace with society and the Crown.

The overall impression is that the energies of the gang members were turned [after 1333] to deeds which were not only less offensive but also of considerable value to the Crown.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.712

Even if the crown failed to convict the leaders of the gang none of its members gives evidence of what might be called a criminal career after 1333.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.717

James Coterel was a dominant figure in the first half of the fourteenth century. Bellamy sums up his influence.

Had there been no ...... James Coterel there might never have been a spate of crime in the northern midlands.

--J. G. Bellamy, The Coterel Gang, p.716-7