How to look for records of... Outlaws and outlawry in medieval and early modern England

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • None

1. Why use this guide?

In popular culture, famous outlaws such as Robin Hood often have a romantic and heroic reputation. While some medieval and early modern criminals did live as fugitives without regard for the law or the people under its protection, the reality of outlaws and outlawry was generally much more mundane. Anyone who was caught up in the process of the law could be declared an outlaw if they persistently failed to obey the rules and orders of courts of law or legal officials like justices and sheriffs.

This is a guide to the legal and administrative records that were created when and after a person was declared an outlaw. These records and those linked to them can be helpful in identifying people, their relationships and networks in the past.

2. What was an outlaw?

An outlaw was a man who was put outside the protection of the law by an official order. Only men aged over 14 could be outlawed. Women were said to be ‘waived’ rather than outlawed although the outcome was the same. Outlawry normally occurred because of a criminal or civil action, although the process sometimes began with a petition in parliament.

Criminal outlawries arose from indictments for treason, rebellion, conspiracy, or other serious felonies.

Civil outlawries usually resulted from defaults in cases of debt.

3. When, why and how records were created

Official declarations of outlawry were issued by courts of law. The consequences of being declared an outlaw, which included the seizure of goods and lands, were also dealt with by the courts. Each formal stage in the process was recorded (see section 4-6 for advice on how to find the records)3.1 Declarations of outlawry

3.1 Declarations of outlawry…

…in the early medieval period

During the early medieval period, most outlawries were for criminal acts. A suitor would make a public accusation called an appeal in the county court, which was run by the sheriff. These appeals, along with royal writs ordering the appearance of the defendant, were recorded by the coroner on his rolls.

…in the late medieval period

By the late medieval period, the process of outlawry had expanded to include both civil and criminal actions. Outlawries were still proclaimed in the sheriff’s county court, but the process of outlawry by appeal had been largely replaced by one based on exigent writs issued by the central courts, either at Westminster or when the senior justices travelled around the country hearing cases on circuit. These writs commanded the sheriff to ensure the appearance in court of a defendant who had previously failed to turn up voluntarily or had not been apprehended. Few records of sheriffs’ courts have survived, but there are some examples in series SC 2.

The legal procedure which led to the declaration of outlawry took the following form:

  1. Writs of capias. If a defendant failed to appear in court, it was the sheriff’s duty to find and arrest him. The court authorised this by issuing writs of capias. Three successive writs were issued in civil and minor criminal issues; one or two for more serious offences of treason, rebellion or homicide.
  2. Writs of exigent. If the sheriff still failed to find the defendant, the next step was to issue a writ of exigent. This declared that the defendant could not be found, did not have any goods in that county, and because of that, could not be ‘attached’ (securities taken for his appearance) or ‘distrained’ (goods seized to enforce his appearance). It directed the sheriff to make a proclamation at five successive sittings of the county courts (in the case of the City of London, at the Hustings), ordering the defendant’s appearance upon pain of outlawry.
  3. The declaration of outlawry. If the defendant had still failed to appear by the sheriff’s fifth proclamation, he was then declared an outlaw.

3.2 The seizure of goods and land

In instances of treason, rebellion or homicide, the lands and possessions of the individual would normally have been seized by the crown by the time a second writ of capias was issued. In other cases, a new writ of capias utlagatum could be obtained from the courts of King’s Bench and Common Pleas, ordering the sheriff to apprehend the outlaw for not appearing, to keep him in custody until the day ordered for his appearance, and then produce him in court. A special writ of capias utlagatum could also command the sheriff to seize possessions. County officials called escheators then managed those lands and goods for the crown until they were regranted or returned if the outlawry was reversed.

Many debt-related actions did not reach the stage of outlawry. A writ was obtained from Chancery ordering the sheriff to make an inquisition into the possessions of a defaulting debtor. Having returned this list of goods, known as an ‘extent’, a further writ was issued allowing the creditor to recover the sum owed. If a case did result in outlawry, an inquisition was officially appointed to discover what lands and goods the outlaw possessed.

3.3 Pardons and the reversing of outlawry

To reverse an outlawry the defendant had to appear in person before the court. It was possible to reverse the outlawry by pleading that an error in the way that the case was handled had been made in either the Court of Common Pleas or King’s Bench. A case could also be transferred from Common Pleas to King’s Bench.

Another way to reverse an outlawry was by pleading a pardon.

To plead his pardon, the defendant first had to surrender himself to the Fleet Prison in the City of London or the Marshalsea, the prison of the King’s Bench court, over the river in Southwark. Having obtained his pardon before surrendering, he would then present this to the court when he appeared in person.

3.4 Other records

References to outlawry and outlaws are found in many other collections, such as Ancient Correspondence or State Papers. Records of outlaws and felons who sought sanctuary or abjured the realm (renounced their status as English subjects), are usually found elsewhere – although mention is sometimes made in criminal indictments arising in the counties from justices on circuit or from the Quarter Sessions, held by justices of the Peace from the mid-fourteenth century (KB 9, KB 10, KB 11) and returned to the King’s Bench court.

4. How to search for declarations of outlawry

Among the records covered in this section are those of the Court of King’s Bench, the most senior criminal court in England. In the records of the court, outlawries resulting from cases between individuals are known as ‘suit of party’ and those arising from criminal cases are known as ‘suit of the crown’.

4.1 Civil outlawries

Outlawries resulting from civil cases can be traced in the texts of other documents and records of proceedings. The best places to look are the plea rolls of the Court of Common Pleas, or the sections of civil cases found in the first part of each plea roll created by the Court of King’s Bench.

If the individual might have been pardoned, searching for the writ of certiorari could speed up your research time, since the information on the plea rolls could be bypassed. Before 1331 this writ was sent to the sheriff. After that date, it was delivered to the judges of Common Pleas or King’s Bench ordering them to produce the documents of the case and its process through the court, together with the proof of the outlaw’s surrender to them and his imprisonment in the Fleet Prison or Marshalsea. Many of the writs were copied onto the plea rolls as part of the record of how cases progressed.

  • C 88 (1277-1628) – writs certiorari super recordum et processum utlagarie, returned to Chancery as the first step to obtaining a pardon for outlawry. Files arranged by groups of regnal years without any other description in the online catalogue.
  • CP 40 (1273-1874) – plea rolls of the Court of Common Pleas. Rolls arranged by regnal year and law term. CP 60 docket rolls offer summary information on cases after 1509.
  • KB 27 (1273-1702) – coram rege rolls. Plea rolls of the Court of King’s Bench, civil pleas section, and KB 122 for complete rolls of civil cases after 1702.

4.2 Criminal outlawries

Criminal outlawries are held in the series listed below. In the KB 26 and KB 27 series, outlaws at ‘suit of party’ are located in the section of civil pleas. Those outlawed at the ‘suit of the crown’ are on the crown or ‘Rex’ section.

  • JUST 2 (1228-1426) – rolls of pleas before coroners, with some other crown plea records for counties, towns, and liberties. Also includes lists of outlawries and returned exigent writs.
  • JUST 1 (1198-1528) – rolls of pleas before judges travelling on circuit to the counties. Search by county and date only (catalogue descriptions contain no further details). Many transcripts have been printed and published by legal and local history societies.
  • KB 26 (1194-1272) – early plea rolls from various courts, formerly curia regis rolls. Most rolls to 1249 are transcribed in printed volumes. Search the catalogue by county, type of court and date only.
  • KB 27 (1273-1702) – coram rege rolls. Plea rolls of the Court of King’s Bench; criminal pleas on the Rex section. One roll for each of the four law terms in each regnal year. KB 29 can be used as an index to and summary of cases across the whole regnal year.
  • KB 29 (1329-1843) – controlment rolls. Memoranda rolls of the clerk of the crown recording progress of cases on the Rex side of King’s Bench. Search by regnal year only (catalogue descriptions contain no further details). There is one roll per regnal
  • SC 2 (c.1200-c.1900) – Special Collections: Court Rolls. Searching on ‘county court’ will separate sheriffs’ courts from the manorial courts that make up most of this series.

Annual rolls called controlment rolls recorded ‘suit of party’ and ‘suit of the crown’ cases but by the 15th century were used mainly to record those outlawed at ‘suit of party’. They begin with writs of inquiry into the goods and movable property (chattels) of persons recently outlawed. Four specific rolls in KB 29 list outlaws at ‘suit of the crown’:

There are also outlawry rolls for the reigns of Henry IV and Henry V in E 389. These contain the names of outlaws sent into the Exchequer from the courts of Common Pleas and King’s Bench. The latter include outlaws at ‘suit of party’ and ‘suit of crown’.

5. How to search for records of the seizure of goods and land

Writs ordering the sheriff to make an inquisition into the possessions of a defaulting debtor are in Chancery records:

  • C 131 (1316-c1660) – Extents for debts, series I. Incudes sheriffs’ valuations of lands and goods seized from debtors. Search by name of debtor, creditor, date or placename.
  • C 239 (1529-1648) – Extents for debts, series II. Mainly writs for the recovery of private debts. Search by regnal year.

Some inquisitions into the lands, goods, and movable possessions (chattels) the outlaw held are found in:

  • C 145 (1218-1485) – Files arranged chronologically, but no searchable descriptions in the catalogue. All items are summarised in published Calendars of Inquisitions Miscellaneous.
  • E 199 (1216-1837) – King’s Remembrancer, sheriffs’ accounts. Includes records of seized outlaws’ lands and goods. Search by county and regnal year.
  • E 379 (1422-c1660) – King’s Remembrancer, sheriffs’ accounts of seizures. Search by county and regnal year.

In the 17th century, seized land and goods are recorded in outlawry books:

  • E 172 (1606-1842) – King’s Remembrancer, outlawries. Transcripts of writs and extents of the lands and goods of outlaws. Use E 173 to locate records.
  • E 173 (1606-1842) – King’s Remembrancer, outlawry books. Registers of writs and notes on seizures of outlaws’ lands and goods. From 1776 they fully list those lands and goods. There are just 5 pieces in this series and they can be used as an index to E 172.

The results of inquisitions were returned to the Exchequer and these are recorded in:

  • E 143 (1216-1830) – King’s Remembrancer, extents and inquisitions. Includes the results of inquests into forfeited land. Chronological arrangement with very little descriptive detail on contents.
  • E 159 and E 368 (1218-1994) – King’s Remembrancer and Lord Treasurer’s Remembrancer, memoranda rolls. Each roll covers one regnal year. Look for the recorda section for each of the four terms on these rolls for the results of inquisitions. Some original indexes from 1543 are in the IND 1 series.

Some records of forfeited lands are in:

  • E 357 (1323-1625) – Escheators’ account rolls. Records of lands which were forfeited  to the crown and then accounted for by escheators in each county. Search by county name and ranges of regnal years. Multiple counties listed as ‘various counties’.
  • E 142 (1211-1438) – Surveys, inquests, and valuations of forfeited lands. Includes documents relating to the Knights’ Templar and the ‘contrariants’, rebels against Edward II in 1320s.

Some isolated accounts of forfeited goods and lands of outlaws have also survived amongst King’s Remembrancer records in:

  • E 101 (1154-c.1830) – accounts various. Some accounts of outlaws’ goods and of land temporarily in the king’s hands.
  • E 364 (1219-1661) – enrolled foreign accounts. Some accounts of possession in the king’s hands were accounted here by county sheriffs.
  • SC 6 (1216-1799) – ministers’ and receivers’ accounts. Search with ‘outlaw’ for accounts of possessions of attainted and outlawed people.

6. How to find records of pardons and the reversing of outlawry

Pardons for civil and criminal outlawries were often enrolled on the patent rolls as additional proof that a pardon had been issued. These records usually present names, places of residence, and occupation of the parties to the cases that resulted in outlawry, as well as the value of any debt. They are in C 66 and summarised in the relevant published Calendar of Patent Rolls.

In the Court of King’s Bench, pardons were usually entered on the crown or Rex side of the coram rege rolls. The outlaw’s goods should then have been restored to him, with notification being sent to the Exchequer.

  • KB 27 (1273-) – coram rege rolls

Records relating to the restoration of lands and possessions are in the recorda section of the memoranda rolls. If an outlaw had been guilty of a serious felony or treason, a reversal could be obtained by petitioning parliament.

  • E 159 – search these memoranda rolls by regnal year, term, and locate the recorda
  • E 368 – search these memoranda rolls by regnal year, term, and locate the recorda
  • C 65 – search these Parliament rolls for petitions to Parliament by date. Very little indexing after 1509. For the medieval period, the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England and Rotuli Parliamentorum publications provide full transcripts of the rolls before that date. See the research guide to Parliament for more details.

7. How to find records of outlawry from the Palatine jurisdictions: Chester, Durham and Lancaster

A person outlawed in one of the three Palatinates, where the crown’s administrative and legal power was delegated regionally, will be found amongst records of those jurisdictions:


For outlawries in the Palatine of Cheshire look in:

  • the Eyre Rolls in CHES 17
  • the Outlawry Rolls in CHES 27
  • the Chester County Court and Great Sessions Plea Rolls in CHES 29
  • the Flint Justices’ Sessions Plea Rolls in CHES 30


For outlawries for the Palatine of Lancaster, look in:

  • the Plea Rolls in PL 15
  • the Crown Court Miscellaneous Records in PL 28


Evidence of outlawries in Durham is in the Plea and Gaol Delivery Rolls in DURH 13.

8. How to find records of outlawry from the Cinque Ports in Kent and Sussex

Records of outlaws from the Cinque Ports are held at the Centre for Kentish Studies, East Sussex Record Office, and the British Library, among the records of the individual ports themselves. Names are often recorded in the Chamberlain’s Accounts where they have survived.

9. Further reading

WS Holdsworth, A History of English Law (3rd edition, 9 volumes, 1922 et seq)

J Bellamy, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages (1973)

M Blatcher, The Court of King’s Bench, 1450-1550 (1978)

M Carlin, London and Southwark Inventories 1316-1650 (1997)

M Hastings, The Court of Common Pleas in the Fifteenth Century (1947)

RF Hunnisett, The Medieval Coroner (1961)

ND Hurnard, The King’s Pardon for Homicide before AD 1307 (1969)

RC Palmer, The County Courts of Medieval England, 1150-1350 (1982)

RB Pugh, Imprisonment in Medieval England (1968)

E Tomlins, The Law Dictionary (2 volumes, 1820)