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Tuesday, 25/03/2003, 09:00-09:30 and repeated 21:30 - 22:00
Jonathan Freedland looks for the past behind the present. Each week, The Long View, recorded on location throughout the British Isles, takes an issue from the current affairs agenda and finds a parallel in our past.
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14th century gangs compared with recent image of police in an anti-gang operation.
Few social problems feel more contemporary - or urgent - than gang violence. Young men marauding through the streets, many of them armed, striking fear into the hearts of local people, has become one of the pressing questions of our time. Earlier this year, the government held a 'gun summit' to discsuss the problem - while on New Year's Eve the issue gained a human face. To to be precise - Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis, shot dead as they stepped out from a party to get a breath of fresh air. Apparently they were caught in the crossfire of a feud between two gangs who'd been terrorising their community.

What's behind these gangs, why can't the law reach them and are we glorifying them in popular music and culture ? Current questions, most certainly, but also ones with a long past. That's why we've come here to Leicester for a story of gang violence that goes back not a few months but nearly seven centuries.

The Folvilles were a Leicestershire gentry family who, throughout the 1320s and 30s, terrorised their local community, committing numerous crimes. In 1310 the father of the family, John de Folville, Lord of Ashby Folville, Leicestershire and of Teigh, Rutland, had died leaving a widow, Alice de Folville and seven sons. The eldest, also named John, inherited the manor of Ashby Folville and seems to have lived within the law. However, his brothers, Eustace, Laurence, Richard, Robert, Thomas and Walter formed the core of a criminal gang.

The early 14th Century was a particularly lawless time, characterised by the chaos of Edward II's rule in which rival factions - Despenser, Mortimer and Lancaster - struggled for power. The first recorded Folville crime was the murder, in 1326, of Roger Bellers, an unpopular baron of the exchequer and judge who had risen to power under the Despenser regime. Although not the actual killers, three Folville brothers, Eustace, Robert and Walter, were present at the scene and indicted as accessories. However, the Folvilles and others accused were all later aquitted - suggesting that they had powerful local connections.

On Location
Left-hand picture:Benjamin Zephaniah, Malacci O'Doherty and Jonathan Freedland during recording.
Right-hand picture: Benjamin Zephaniah and Malacci O'Doherty.
Left-hand picture:Anthony Musson and Jonathan Freedland
Right-hand picture: Jonathan Freedland, Anthony Musson and the producer Virginia Crompton.

Over the following decade, the Folvilles continued to go about the country, beating, wounding and holding to ransom. They hired themselves out as mercenaries, destroying property for payment and Eustace, most violent of the brothers, committed murders, rape and robberies in Leicestershire, Rutland and the surrounding countryside.

In 1332, the Folvilles and their associates committed one of their most serious crimes - the kidnap of Sir Richard Willoughby, a local judge, on the road between Melton Mowbray and Grantham, near Waltham-on-the-Wolds. According to the indictment, Willoughby was taken 'from wood to wood' before his men gave the gang the ransom they were demanding of 1,300 marks. Willoughby was also robbed of a hundred pounds worth of chattels while in custody.

The aftermath of the Willoughby case, coincided with attempts by the crown to crack down on Gang violence. Speeches were made at Westminster condemning the outlaws and yet more criminal proceedings were begun against the Folvilles. More generally, new legal initiatives sought to reform the judiciary and stamp out lawlessness. However, these measures were relatively ineffective, in part because the attention of the crown and political administration switched to a new priority, war with Scotland. After 16 years of recorded crime, the Folvilles were still untouched by the law. Several of the brothers were sent abroad to fight for their protectors; in 1337 Robert de Folville went overseas in the retinue of the Earl of Northumberland, Eustace was ordered to Scotland and then to Flanders.

Holy Trinity Church, Teigh.

However, in Feb 1340 justice finally caught up with at least one of the Folville brothers. A commission was appointed to arrest Richard de Foville under the statute of 1336 and send him to the Tower of London. In late 1340 or early 1341 Richard, who had been made rector of Teigh by his elder brother, took refuge in his church along with a band of followers - including, perhaps, some of his brothers. Shooting arrows from within, Richard killed one of his pursuers and wounded others before being dragged out by the angry crowd and beheaded outside the church by Sir Robert de Colville, a keeper of the peace. We have a description of Richard's capture and death from a letter of pardon written by Clement VI, authorising the Bishop of Lincoln to absolve Sir Robert de Colville for the killing of a priest; while the beheading of an outlaw was permissible under the law, the execution of a priest was not. To gain absolution, Colville and his followers were beaten with a rod outside the principal churches of the district while a penitential psalm was sung.

Dr Anthony Musson – University of Exeter
Dr Benjamin Zephaniah – Poet
Malachi O'Doherty – Editor of 'Fortnight' Magazine, Northern Ireland

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In Our Time
Thursday 9.00-9.45am, rpt 9.30-10.00pm. Melvyn Bragg explores the history of ideas. Listen again online or download the latest programme as an mp3 file.
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Jonathan Freedland
Jonathan Freedland is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster. A twice-weekly columnist on the Guardian, he also presents BBC 4's The Talk Show on Monday nights at 8.30pm. He is author of the book Bring Home the Revolution, an acclaimed analysis of modern America.
Read a full profile of Jonathan Freedland on BBC 4 ..>>

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