Family Lessons 96: The Outlaw

In the year 1174, my 25th great-grandfather was declared an outlaw. This is a term with which we are still familiar even though its usage has long ceased. Gilbert de Walton was formally subjected to outlawry, meaning that while he was not then in the custody of the authorities, he was henceforth denied any protection that the law might offer. It was civil and social death, and potentially physical, for anyone might attack him with impunity and seize his goods without penalty (if the Crown had not got there first).

Gilbert had unwisely participated in the Barons' Rebellion of 1173–4, during which Prince Henry, eldest son of King Henry II, rebelled against his father on account of his overlooked financial needs. Historians suggest that unscrupulous noblemen may have instigated the feud, with Gilbert, presumably among them or with them. Henry II’s vengeance saw the destruction of 20 castles and several towns, with the poorest people doubtless bearing the brunt of their betters’ quarrels. Gilbert survived capture and execution, but was perpetually on the run.

It would seem that life as an outlaw was not convivial to Grandpa Gilbert; perhaps the stories of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest were still a bit raw, and had not become the romantic legends about which we are now pleased to ponder. He managed to convince the King to forgive him and remit his sentence in 1176. A payment of £400 was exchanged, which doubtless persuaded the King to exercise the more clement aspect of his character. £400 in 1209 (the Bank of England’s online inflation calculator does not go back as far as 1176) was worth around £673,063.37 in September 2023. Loss of this enormous sum was presumably calculated to be less painful than having no protection in law. Gilbert had another 20 years of life, during which he attempted to rebuild the family finances at Walton on the Hill where he was manor lord. It seems remarkable that he could muster such a sum when his wordly goods had been declared forfeit. 

There are many today who ignore God and reject His gospel, yet they benefit from His protections and blessings. Human government, which He instituted, and His general restraint on demonic evil, is something from which we all benefit, regardless of belief. Furthermore, His common grace provides rain and sunshine for all, whether they praise Him or not. Hell is the ultimate expression of outlawry; it is the place from which God withdraws Himself and withholds His grace. It is a place of general punishment, yet it is also a location where unrestricted, evil passions are able to rage and expand, a place of unreserved and unmitigated hatred, sorrow and malice. If Gilbert paid four hundred quid to come back under the king’s protection and favour, how much will you pay to live under God’s good laws forever? Thankfully, Christ Jesus paid the price, if you will simply believe and submit. King Jesus is more gracious than King Henry, and outlawry from His presence is far worse than anything Gilbert experienced for those two years on the run.

Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Matthew 11:29