Do you know how your town or village got its name? Was it linked to kings, famous people or unusual happenings? Was it named because of its location? Or was it named after a robber? One story suggests that Dunstable, in Bedfordshire, was indeed named after a robber – the robber Dunne!
In the reign of King Henry I, a band of fifty outlaws lurked in the thickest woods, where the Icknield Way crosses Watling Street near Houghton Regis. Many were Saxons left landless and destitute by the Norman conquerors. A courageous and clever young man called Dunne was the leader of this band...
“Hsst” whispered the young man to his followers, as he held up his hand, listening hard. “Horses … it’ll be some rich Norman or churchman … just the kind of prize we like!! Spread out, there’s plenty of cover here. Wait for the signal.” Silently, stealthily, the outlaws hid themselves in the trees and bushes beside the pathway.
They watched the approaching party. Ha! Yes! A Norman landowner and his cronies – well known and hated by the local Saxon tenants and peasants. The small group was worried, glancing nervously from side to side. But the way looked clear. Suddenly the screaming alarm call of the jay rang out overhead. The whole party startled and looked up. There was a rustling in the bushes and as the Normans lowered their eyes, they found themselves surrounded by fifty outlaws, brandishing staves and knives.
Dunne stepped forward boldly. “I am Dunne! If you dismount and hand over your purses, goods and finery, no one will be hurt. If you resist or try to escape, we will have no mercy. Make your choice.” The Normans looked at each other. They all knew Dunne’s reputation – his outlaws were not averse to wounding or even killing some of their victims, if they tried to violently resist the attack.
Reluctantly, they dismounted and threw their purses on the ground. Dunne signalled some men to pick them up and take the horses. “Your weapons now,” he demanded. They followed the purses. “Now your coats, jackets, trousers, hats and boots.” The Normans looked at each other aghast. “But…”one stammered. Three outlaws immediately rushed forward and grabbed him. “No, no, I’ll do it!” he screamed and hurriedly tore off his outer garments. His friends followed suit.
“Good,” said Dunne. “Now, hold out your hands and stand perfectly still whilst we collect your trinkets.” He turned to his band. “Just take the whole hand of anyone who moves or resists in anyway. We haven’t got all day!” The men grinned evilly and strode among the Normans, pulling off rings and tearing off necklaces.
Once they had yielded all their booty, Dunne called out, “Off with you. Get a move on – go on, run!” And, helped along by the staves of the cheering outlaws, the Normans turned and fled back along the path.
Once the Normans were out of sight, the outlaws disappeared into the trees with their plunder. They met up in a clearing and shared out the riches, to take to their families and friends back in their villages and makeshift settlements. They then dispersed, agreeing to meet for another foray in a few days’ time. For countless months, they appeared to live and rob without a care. No-one dared to challenge them and their quick witted leader, Robber Dunne, was becoming a legendary figure.
However, those that had been robbed complained, loudly and long, to any official they could find. Eventually, the complaints reached the ears of the King. Henry I was an intelligent, resourceful monarch. He decided to visit the area to see for himself the problem, before considering a solution. He found the forest where the thieves usually lurked but the outlaws had heard that he was coming and stayed well away.
King Henry decided that a two pronged approach was needed. To stop attacks on good and honest people, now and in the future, he ordered the cutting down of the wood. Travellers would now be able to see the way ahead, from whichever direction they approached the crossroads, and see any danger coming. An ambush would become impossible.
Once the trees had been cleared, Henry decided to set a trap to catch the crafty leader of the outlaws and make an example of him. The king had a long pole put up at the busy crossroads. A stout staple was driven in near to the top of the pole and a valuable ring, belonging to the king, was firmly attached to it. He then set a twenty four hour guard around the pole and dared any thief brave enough, or foolish enough, to steal the ring from under the noses of his soldiers.
The ring and pole both disappeared!
King Henry was angry and amazed. How could any robber be so clever and so cunning? He sent his soldiers out immediately on an enquiry across the entire area of South Bedfordshire. He was sure that, with a little persuasion, someone could be found to give away the outlaws’ whereabouts. How right he was! The hunt was narrowed down to the parish of Houghton Regis. The King ordered a house to house search.
Now, having engineered the theft of the pole and ring, Dunne had hidden them under his bed in his mother’s cottage. Hearing of the house to house search for the robber, he persuaded his mother to give him her other set of clothes, dabbed his face with mud and blood to create blotches and retired to his bed.
When the expected blows on the door sounded, the widow hurried to let in the soldier. As he searched the few rooms, she explained breathlessly that her sister, who was visiting, had fallen very ill of a nasty contagious infection. The soldier stood undecided at the door of the bedroom; she did look a terrible mess. He was about to turn away when he spotted something odd poking from under the bed.
He went into the room and bent to examine the object. Dunne leapt out of the bed, knocked the soldier to the floor and fled out of the door. Unfortunately for him, the soldier was only dazed and soon started yelling for help. Other soldiers came rushing and pulled the bed to pieces. There, sure enough, was the staple with the ring still attached!
They immediately set off, chasing after the outlaw. Dunne knew his own countryside like the back of his hand, and dodged and weaved a path through the wooded countryside, leaving his pursuers far behind. He made his way to Knapps Brook. He worked out that if he waded down the brook he would leave no footprints and, when it joined the river Lea two miles downstream, he would be able to steal a craft to take him to London. Once there, he was likely to be safe among the crowds.
As he ran, Dunne found the skirts he was wearing, snagging on the undergrowth, slowing him down and hampering his escape. He tore off the clothes and bundled them into some bushes near the stream. Off he set again, jumping down into the brook and moving as fast as he could along the rocky bottom, through the ice cold water. Now and then it was deep enough to swim, but mostly he stumbled and scrambled his way along.
Not far to go. He was approaching the last tricky part before the brook joined the river. The stream narrowed and the water tumbled over a mass of huge boulders, splashing and crashing its way through the rocks. Dunne, deafened, started to pick his way through the turbulence, knowing one false step, one lapse in concentration would mean he would be swept, smashing into the rocks.
He was nearly there. He paused for breath and glanced ahead. Horrified, he saw a barrier of mounted horses across the brook, blocking his path. He turned to scrabble back up the stream, but there, on the other side of the boulders was another blockade. He was trapped. His bid for freedom was over.
A few days later, Dunne was hanged at the very crossroads he and his band had terrorised. People came from far and near to watch the gruesome end of this famous robber. Many cheered, glad to see the last of this troublesome thief. Others remained silent, remembering the times when they had been fed by the money he had stolen, when they had been the recipient of his generous distribution of the plunder.
Where once the wood stood, the king built a market town to provide shelter for travellers. The town was called Dunstable! The king built a palace for himself, to live in the area that is now Kingsbury. He started a monastery nearby which became very important. Around these two great buildings, the present town of Dunstable grew.
The king issued his new town with a charter, giving it permission to hold a market. Dunstable thrived and many important and historic decisions were taken there, including the decision that ended the first marriage of King Henry VIII. Until 1600, every king or queen of England visited the town.
Would the King really have allowed the town to be named after a notorious villain? Many people have questioned this. The story was first recorded one hundred and fifty years after the death of Dunne, by a monk from the monastery. It was passed down through the generations. Many years later, John Willis wrote down the story in a long poem called 'The Legend of Dunne'.
There are very few towns that have been named after a rogue, but Dunstable might just be one of them. As the final words of the poem record:
'And for that Dunne, before the woods was downe,
Had there his haunte, and thence did steale away,
The staple and the ringe, thereof the towne,
Is called Dunstable until this daye'.