“By hook or by crook” is synonymous with “by fair means or foul”. The phrase is very old, first recorded in Middle English in 1380, although no one is absolutely sure of its derivation.
The first appearance of the phrase “by hook or by crook” is in the theological writings of the philosopher and religious dissident John Wycliffe (1320-84), although that was not why the Council of Constance declared him a heretic on 4 May 1415 and banned his writings. In 1428, Pope Martin V went one step further and ordered Wycliffe’s corpse to be exhumed and burned. His ashes were cast into the River Swift in the English county of Leicestershire.
Another early usage appears is by the English poet John Gower in Confessio Amantis (“The Lover’s Confession”), a 33,000-line long poem written in 1390, in which false witness and perjury are cited as getting a result: “What with hepe and what with croke they make her maister ofte winne.”
“Hepe” was the medieval name for a curved billhook and “croke” a shepherd’s crook. The expression may hark back to a custom that allowed peasants to take firewood from the King’s forests: any dead wood they could reach with a shepherd’s crook or cut off with a reaper’s billhook.
William the Conqueror established “forest law” in England after 1066. Different from common law it served to protect game animals and their forest habitat from destruction. In the year of the king’s death, 1087, “The Rime of King William”, a poem inserted in the so-called Peterborough Chronicle, expressed English indignation at the forest laws.
Succeeding kings discovered that granting rights in the royal forests could be a “nice little earner”. Local nobles could buy a royal licence to take a certain amount of game. In return for services, the common inhabitants of the forest might be given the right to take firewood, the right to pasture swine in the forest, the right to cut turf for fuel, and various other rights of pasturage and harvesting the products of the forest.
The earliest examples of the modern usage of the phrase “by hook or by crook” appear in the English pamphleteer Philip Stubbes’ The Anatomie of Abuses (1583): “Either by hooke or crooke, by night or day” and in the English poet Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene written between 1590 and 1596: “In hope her to attaine by hooke or crooke.”
All of which challenges the idea that the phrase comes from the names of the villages of Hook Head and nearby Crooke in Waterford, Ireland. Hook Head and Crooke are on opposite sides of a sea channel and, knowing the phrase, Oliver Cromwell may well have joked that Waterford would fall “by Hook or by Crooke”, i.e. by landing his army at one of those two places during the siege of the town in 1649/50.
The expression was used in the very first episode of The Prisoner, a controversial 1967 UK television series about a man who, after resigning from a government agency, is kidnapped from his London home and awakes in a strange village, where he is known only by the name Number Six. His captors want information, information, information.
Number Six: “You won’t get it.”
Number Two: “By hook or by crook, we will.”