What was a medieval outlaw?

Outlaws in medieval England were quite literally criminals who were declared to be living outside the protection of the law. If a man accused of murder, for instance, failed to attend his court proceeding and face trial, the county sheriff would be tasked with finding him.

The sheriff would then make appeals at several other courts, to give the fugitive a chance to hand himself in. However, if he still evaded capture, the court would declare him an outlaw. The Latin legal term ‘caput lupinum’ (‘wolf’s head’) was used at court to label the criminal as no better than an animal to be hunted. Only males over the age of 14 could be declared outlaws (women were declared ‘waived’), and depending on the severity of their crime they could expect to lose all of their possessions, money, and any land they owned.

This historical image depicts a scene from Sherwood Forest


As well as murderers; traitors, rebels or even debtors could be declared outlaws if they failed to appear at court. Anyone could steal from, assault or even kill an outlaw and not face criminal justice themselves, as the outlaw was beyond the protection of the law. This meant that life could be incredibly harsh for an outlaw, and is why the ‘writ of outlawry’ was among the severest punishments of the time.

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