Q&A: When and why was the medieval law of outlawry eventually repealed?

From Robin Hood to Sawney Bean, British history is full of stories of legendary outlaws...

Illustration by Glen McBeth.

Anyone declared an outlaw was denied any form of legal protection. Nobody was allowed to give them food, shelter or any kind of help, and they could be killed with impunity. Outlawry was most commonly imposed for failing to answer a court summons; with no national police force and plenty of hiding-places, outlawry was a simple, rough-and-ready, form of justice. There was also a civil equivalent, which didn’t carry the death penalty, but the defendant’s goods were usually forfeit to the plaintiff.

The Middle Ages saw plenty of famous outlaws, as well as some like Robin Hood or the Scottish cannibal Sawney Beane, who probably never existed. Some, such as 14th-century bandits like Eustace Folville or Adam the Leper, got away with it, or were pardoned. On the other hand, Richard Puddlecote was hanged and his skin nailed to the door of Westminster Abbey in 1305. But he had stolen most of the royal treasury, after all.

With the increasing integration of society and more sophisticated policing, outlawry became a formality. It was abolished in England under the Criminal Code (Indictable Offences) Act of 1879, but outlawry or ‘fugitation’ remained in force in Scotland until December 1949. The last Scottish outlaw was Charles Shaw Bland, who jumped bail in 1949 after being charged with housebreaking and assault.

This Q&A was answered by Eugene Byrne, author and journalist.  

 
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