Tag Archives: Nottingham

Law and Order in the Middle Ages

If a person committed a crime, they were punished at the Manor Court by their lord or at the Shire Moot by the Sheriff. The Chief Forester could also punish them at a Forest Court such as Edwinstowe or a Forest Eyre such as Nottingham.

Many of those lacking the money and influence to ensure a fair trial hearing in the courts failed to appear before the judges, and became outlaws like Robin Hood.

There were still some Saxon customs in use after the Norman Conquest. If someone was accused of a crime, they might suffer Ordeal by Combat, Ordeal by Fire or Ordeal by Water.

Ordeal by Combat meant that a noble had to fight the person that accused them. Both were given special axes and shields and would fight until one of them shouted “Craven“. The one who lost was put to death.
Ordeal by Fire involved carrying a piece of red-hot iron for three paces. the person’s hand was then bound up and if when this was undone three days later there were no blisters, they were innocent. If they had blisters they were punished or killed.

Ordeal by Water meant that they were tied up and thrown in the river. If they stayed under the water for several minutes, they were innocent. If they floated, they were guilty of the crime.

When Henry II came to power, he made new laws and stopped these cruel ways of trial. He ordered Trial by Jury. This meant that twelve good people could swear that they knew about the person who was accused of a crime. People sometimes bribed others to say things that were not true.

Law in the Town

The Mayor and the Alderman kept Law and order in the towns. They paid 1/4d. a day to the Common Sergeant and the Watchman to do the work for them.

When the Normans conquered England they introduced ‘curfew’ (cover fire) to make the Saxon locals go to bed early. During curfew, no one was allowed out on to the streets, or the watchman would arrest them. Curfew was at eight o’clock in the winter and nine o’clock in the summer.

Forest Law

Hunting Venison.

Hunting Venison.

The Chief Forester enforced all of the Forest Laws and was responsible for each of the royal forests, including Sherwood Forest. He was represented by Foresters , who looked after the forest and Verderers (wardens) who made sure that Forest Law was not broken.

The Forest Laws were designed to protect both hunting animals and woodland from all but the king and his followers. Offences against ‘vert’ included cutting down saplings, branches and especially, of course, full-grown trees. Offences against “venison” included the hunting of red, fallow and roe deer, but also of wild boar. It was forbidden for anyone to carry bows and arrows in the royal forests and if a forest beast were found dead, an inquest was held.


There were many strange punishments at this time. If someone stole they would be put in the pillory (by standing on the platform with their head and hands through the holes) or in the stocks (with their feet locked through the holes).

A woman who nagged her husband was called a ‘scold’. She was tied to a chair and dipped in the pond. This chair was called the “ducking stool”. She might also have to wear a scold’s bridle, which had a piece of iron to go in the mouth to keep her tongue down. In Nottingham these punishments took place in the Market Square, where many people could laugh at those in the pillory and stocks. The dunking stool was kept in Cook Stool Row, which is now called Pillory.

A baker who made poor bread would be dragged on a sledge, with a loaf tied to his neck. If a fishmonger sold bad fish, he would be taken around the town with stinking fish hanging from his neck. A bad priest would have to ride through the streets sitting facing his horse’s tail and wearing a paper crown.

The courts also imposed some savage punishments meaning that the threat of prosecution acted as a powerful deterrent. People who cut firewood from the royal forests would be whipped or fined. Those who murdered or killed a royal deer may have their ears or hands cut off, or worse still, hanged in public for everyone to see. Nobles could choose to be beheaded instead of being hung.

Crafts in the Middle Ages

Craftworkers who made the same things joined together in social clubs called guilds (or gilds). Henry II granted Nottingham the Guild of Weavers in 1155 and gave them a monopoly of working dyed cloth within a radius of ten leagues.

The guilds did good work. They made sure their members charged honest prices and used good materials. Merchants also had guilds to make sure that they traded fairly.

The Guilds had to pay the king (or exchequer) a sum of money each year. The Pipe Roll shows that in 1176, most of the English counties had to delay payment due to the damage brought about by the war. This included Nottingham where the Guild of Weavers could not make their annual payment to the exchequer.

Most members of guilds were male. When a boy was about fourteen, he might become an apprentice, which means that he would learn a trade for seven years. He went to live with his master, to learn how to make clothes, or armour, or whatever his master made. At night he slept in the shop. He would also help to sell the goods, crying out to passers-by “What díye lack? What díye lack?

When he finished his apprentice, he then made his “masterpiece“. If it was good enough, he was allowed to join the guild and become a journeyman.

Town Life in the Middle Ages

After the Norman Conquest, towns grew bigger, especially Nottingham. Even so, they were not very large towns, for there were not as many people in England as there are today. The streets were narrow and the houses were built close together.

The Chapel Bar

The Chapel Bar

The Chapel Bar

Around each town there was a thick wall for safety against enemies, and the town gates were locked every night at sunset. The Chapel Bar (pictured here) was the last surviving town gate of Nottingham before it was demolished in the 18th century. Merchants who travelled to Nottingham to sell goods would have to pay money, called a toll, before they were allowed in.

The townsfolk were freemen who had paid their lord a sum of money to be free and they had to look after themselves. They chose a Mayor, who, with the help of his Aldermen, ruled the town. Every town had its own laws and punishments. The Mayor told the people what they must do through the town crier, who called out messages and news at the Market Square.

Streets in Nottingham

The narrow streets in big towns like Nottingham were very dirty. There were cobbles outside the shops, but in the middle of the road was a kind of gutter into which everyone threw their rubbish, even sweepings from the stables, dead dogs and other smelly things. People threw dirty water from upstairs windows, and pigs and chickens wandered in and put of the rubbish looking for food.

Water had to be fetched from the River Trent or drawn up from well in the town. It could also be bought from water-carriers that took it round the streets in carts or buckets. Food was bought from traders or merchants. People working in the same trade usually lived in the same street.


During the Middle Ages, people enjoyed watching plays, which, at first, were acted in the church porch. This was how the priests taught people the Bible stories. Sometimes these religious plays were acted in the Market Square or on a cart that went round the town. They were called Miracle Plays. By the later part of the Middle Ages, stories of Robin Hood had become widespread and many plays and games were based on him.


Two Knights Jousting

Two Knights Jousting

There were often tournaments held in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. The most popular sport at the tournament was jousting. In a joust, two knights charged at each other and each knight tried to knock his opponent to the ground. There was a Marshall, who made sure that everyone played by the rules and didnít cheat.

At a tournament, children and grown-ups also played games, some of which were rather rough. They liked to play football, handball, marbles and tops. They also liked archery and the cruel sport of bear baiting.

Bearward Lane (now Mount Street) in Nottingham was where the town bears were kept in cages, before being taken to the Market Square or castle grounds to be attacked by fierce dogs in front of a crowd of people.

Other Characters connected with Robin Hood

Maid Marion is not part of the legend, even Sherwood Forest is not named in the Gest, and the only king mentioned was Edward.

The sheriff of Nottingham and the prioress of Kirklees were never named, and as there were three King Edwards in succession, the author does not disclose in which century the Gest is set. Robin asks the knight if he was ‘made a knyght of force’, this refers to ‘distraint of knighthood’, which required military tenants who held twenty pound per annum to receive knighthoods or pay a compensation.

This was introduced by Henry III, and continued by his son Edward I, and appears to be a reference to the thirteenth century.

However, when ‘Edward our comly King’ comes to Nottingham in search of Robin and the knight, he later travels to Lancashire, and then to Plomton Park to inspect the state of his forests.

Edward II is known to have inspected his forests in the fourteenth century, and he probably passed through Lancashire. Robin is associated with Barnsdale in Yorkshire, and with Sherwood Forest and Nottingham.

The Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire components are especially evident in the Gest, which is made up of smaller ballads joined together to make an almost epic story.

Authority Figures in the Middle Ages

Robin Hood has little regard for authority, (apart from the king) his enemies in the Gest include Bishops and Archbishops and the sheriff of Nottingham.

The ballads do not explain why Robin became an outlaw, and his animosity towards the sheriff is taken for granted, although some believe the story of the sheriff of Nottingham may have originally been separate and later added to the legend of Robin Hood.

In the Gest Robin says:

If he be a pore man of my good he shall have some.

This theme would appeal to the common man, but Robin does not rob from the rich to give to the poor.

He gives a loan of four hundred pound to a knight who is in debt to the abbot of St Mary’s York, but later takes eight hundred pound from two monks of the same abbey. When the knight returns to repay his loan, Robin gives him another 400 pound above the initial loan then keeps the rest. The ballads do not show us a real Robin Hood, whose origins are lost in time.

In the Gest, Robin shoots the sheriff of Nottingham then beheads him. In Robin Hood and the Monk, Little John beheads a monk, then Much the Millar’s son does the same to the monk’s little page. The outlaws kill with vigor, and their ruthlessness cannot be overlooked, but Robin and his merry men were still seen as ‘good’ outlaws. In contrast, the Gest tells us that Robin is religious. He hears mass, is devoted to the Virgin Mary, and would never harm a woman. The sheriff’s wife, Sir Richard’s wife, and the prioress of Kirklees are the only women mentioned in the ballads.