The Real Robin Hoods: 5 Outlaw Gangs of Medieval England

Robin Hood is probably the most well-known outlaw of medieval times. But he is also a legend, at best a hybrid, idealized version of the outlaws at large in England between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries.

These outlaws were sometimes rebels, fighting against authority. Often, they were displaced through injustice. Like Robin Hood, they may have evaded the law with the help of friends amongst the clergy and the minor landed gentry. But they were also ruthless survivors and cut throats. Even if they robbed the rich, certainly didn’t give to the poor.

These real Robin Hoods may have provided the inspiration for the legend. But they also show the reality behind the romance. Here are just five of them.

Hereward the Wake

 Hereward the Wake or ‘the watchful one’ as his nickname translates, was an eleventh century Saxon/Danish thane and freedom fighter that led a fenland revolt against William the conqueror.

Hereward the Wake. Google Images

Hereward was the son of a Lincolnshire squire. The facts of his early life are sketchy. Edward the Confessor was said to have declared Hereward an outlaw prior to the Norman Conquest and sent him into exile on the continent. At the time of the Norman Conquest, he was working as a mercenary. By the time he returned, the Normans had appropriated his lands.

What is certain however is that Hereward led a revolt against the Normans. He objected to the appointment of a Norman abbot at Peterborough- especially as his Uncle had been the previous incumbent.

In 1070, a Danish fleet appeared in the fenland waters around the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire. Many of the local people were of Danish descent so they were heartened by the appearance of the Danes, who they hoped would help them throw off the yoke of their Norman masters.

Hereward and a band of outlaws joined with the Danish forces to loot and sack the monastery at Peterborough. However, once the abbey’s treasure was secure, the Danes quickly made a deal with King William and sailed away. After all, they were in it for the profit, not the principle.

Hereward and his men were left alone to face the King’s men and were driven to the Isle of Ely, where they made their last stand. In 1071, William attached the causeway to the island with his ships. The island was surrendered to the king’s forces when the monks revealed a secret entrance to the King’s forces. Hereward was forced to flee, disappearing into the fens and so into legend. Like Robin Hood, he became a figurehead of resistance to the tyranny of the elite.