Seeking sanctuary after 1540

Only about six* records survive of men seeking sanctuary under the new post-1540 system; of those, Westminster remained the most popular choice – three of six went there. One was a labourer from Cambridge, Robert Mere. He’d stolen a grey horse in the university town, but something evidently went wrong with his getaway plan as the next day he took sanctuary in the parish church in Barrington, Cambridgeshire.

[ *depends how you count – between five and seven]

After confessing and abjuring before the coroner, he was branded with the letter A (for abjurer) and then sent on his way to Westminster. Westminster (the coroner noted) was his choice.


Joining Mere at Westminster about six months later was a gentleman named Thomas Sybbell of London. He’d done the usual gentlemanly crime – killed another man (Humphrey Taylour, yeoman) in what the coroner’s inquest jurors found to be self-defence. Sybbell didn’t use the parish-church-abjuration route but instead ran from Southwark, site of his fight with Taylour, directly to Westminster. Interestingly, the coroner used the old language in his report: he fled to the “sanctuary and privilege of the *church* of St Peter, Westminster.”


Memo to coroner: it wasn’t actually supposed to be church-based any more. But old habits and formulaic language die hard.

While Mere just disappeared from the records, Sybbell got the usual outcome from the traditional gentleman’s use of sanctuary, especially for self-defence: within a few months, he appeared at King’s Bench with a pardon in hand and walked free. No mitigations like the old mitigations.

TNA, KB 9/979, m. 171; KB 29/175, m. 6; KB 9/551, mm. 31-32; KB 27/1124, rex m. 6; TNA, KB 29/175, m. 13, m. 17d.

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