‘The Outlaw’s Song’
trans. Gillian Spraggs from ‘Trailbaston’ ed. Isabel S. T.
Aspin in Anglo-Norman Political Songs (Oxford, Blackwell for the
Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1953), pp. 67–78
The Political Songs of England, ed. Thomas Wright (Camden Society, 1839), pp. 231–236
between April 1305 and February 1307
The Outlaw’s Song
I am seized with desire to rhyme and tell a tale
of an institution that’s established in the land.
It would be better if the thing were still to do.
Unless God intervenes, I think there will be war.
These are the articles of Trailbaston.1
Save for the King himself, may he have Gods curse
who first granted this sort of commission,
for some of its clauses are very far from fair.
Sir, if I wish to punish my serving-boy
with a thump or two, to mend his ways,
he will lay information and have me detained,
and before I leave jail I must pay a large ransom.
Forty shillings they take for my ransom,
and the sheriff turns up for his bribe
for not putting me in a deep dungeon.
Now, lords, consider, is this fair?
For this reason I shall stay in the woods, in the pleasant shade;
there is no false dealing there, nor any bad law,
in the wood of Belregard, where flies the jay,
and the nightingale sings daily without ceasing.
But ill-disposed people, from whom God keep his pity,
out of their lying mouths have indicted me
of wicked robberies and other crimes,
so that I do not dare to visit my friends.
I have served my lord the King in peace and war,
in Flanders, Scotland, in Gascony, his own land;
but now I do not know how to provide for myself;
all my time I’ve wasted in pleasing such a man.
If these wicked jurors refuse to mend their ways
so that I may go riding to my country,
if I can capture them, I’ll make their heads fly off.
I’ll not give a penny for all their threatening words.
Martin and Knoville are men of piety,2
and pray for the poor that they may live in safety;
Spigurnel and Belflour are men of cruelty;
if they were in my bailiwick, they would not find a refuge.
I will teach them the game of Trailbaston,
and break their backs and their arses,
their arms and legs, it would be fair,
crop their tongues and their mouths, too.
Whoever began this business
will never amend in his life.
I tell you the truth, there is too much sin in it,
because for fear of prison many will turn robber.
Some will become robbers who never used to be,
who dare not lead a peaceful life for fear of jail;
they lack what it takes to keep them alive each day.
Whoever began this business embarked on a great task.
Well may merchants and monks give a curse
to all those who ordained the Trailbaston.
The royal protection will not be worth a garlic head
unless they hand over the coins without getting anything back.
You who are indicted, I advise you, come to me,
to the green wood of Belregard, where there is no entanglement,
just wild animals and pleasant shade;
for the common law is too unreliable.
If you know your letters and are tonsured,
you will be summoned in front of the judges.
You may be sent back to jail again,
in the keeping of the bishop, until you are cleared.
[two lines missing in manuscript]
and suffer privations and very hard penance,
and perhaps you will never be released.
For this reason it is better to stay with me in the woods
than to lie in chains in the bishop’s prison.
The penance is too great and hard to bear.
He is a fool who will not choose the best.
Before, I knew something of what was good, now I am not so wise.
This the wicked laws do, subjecting me to abuse,
so that I dare not come and live in peace among my kin.
The rich go for ransom, the poor fade away.
It were a hard matter to stake that that cannot be redeemed,
that is, a man’s life, that is so dearly loved;
and I have not the goods to arrange a ransom,
but if I were in their bailiwick, I’d be given over to death.
I shall yet obtain pardon and hear human voices.
Some speak ill of me who dare not approach me,
and would willingly see my body mistreated;
but God may save a man from a thousand devils.
The one who can save me is the son of Mary,
for I am not guilty, I was indicted out of malice.
Whoever drove me to this place, may God curse them.
The world is so changeable, he is a fool who trusts it.
If I belong to a fellowship and know something of archery,
my neighbour will go about saying, ‘That man belongs to a fellowship
which goes shooting in the woods and doing other stupid things.
If he lives as he wants to, he will lead his life like a swine.’
If I know more than they do of the law,
they will say, ‘That conspirator begins to plot treachery,’
and I won’t come near my home by ten leagues or by two.
May they be held in shame in every district.
I ask all good people that they will pray for me,
so that I may go riding to my country.
I was never a killer, of my own will, at least,
nor a wicked robber, to cause people harm.
This rhyme was made in the wood, under a laurel tree.
There sing blackbird and nightingale, and the hawk ranges.
It was written on parchment to be better remembered,
and thrown into the highway so that someone should find it.
- Trailbaston: commissions of trailbaston were first given to selected justices in 1304, in the reign of Edward I. Their purpose was to deal with a crisis in public order, by enquiring into violent crime and punishing not only the perpetrators but those more powerful and shadowy figures who instigated such crimes and shielded the criminals from justice. However, to the outlaw in the poem, trailbaston law is no more than a weapon in the hands of his enemies, the unscrupulous jurors and judges. [return]
- Martin, Knoville, Spigurnel, Belflour: these four men were appointed as trailbaston justices for the south-west counties in April 1305. In February 1307, when their appointments came to be renewed, Spigurnel was left out. The poem was fairly certainly written between these two dates. [return]
Translation, notes and page design © Gillian Spraggs 2001, 2007
Text added to site on 20 September 2001 | Page last modified on 28 August 2007
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