Just like the old days

In Mary’s reign, something like the traditional privilege was exercised again at Westminster Abbey. The historian who’s written about this, David Loades, argues (sensibly) that this was a strategic demonstration of the abbey’s rights and immunities. So we see a few cases of debtors and a few accused of homicide in Westminster. There are a few interesting ones that I profile in other posts. For this case, one that’s déjà-vu-all-over-again: a gentleman using sanctuary following a homicide just as his forebears a generation before had done.

On 14 April 1557, a coroner’s inquest jury convened over the body of William Stokesley of London, gentleman, found dead in the parish of St Clement Danes, between the City proper and Westminster. The jurors reported that another London gentleman, John Kerle, had killed him. The jurors used heightened language to report the death: Kerle was “seduced by diabolical instigation” to attack Stokesley on that April afternoon.


After their altercation, the jurors noted, Kerle fled to the sanctuary of St Peter at Westminster. Just like old times. And also just like the old days, Kerle got out of the homicide charge, though it did take a while (and as usual we don’t know where he was in the meantime, resting in sanctuary or hiding elsewhere).

In 1562 he appeared at the peace sessions in London to face the homicide indictment. He pleaded not guilty, went to a jury, and the jury found him not guilty. Moreover the trial jurors named another man as responsible for Stokesley’s death: James Hamms.

If Kerle was in fact innocent – or if he was guilty, for that matter – then sanctuary probably saved his bacon. But he was one of the last who was able to use sanctuary as a tool to deal with the homicide charge, at least as far as surviving records suggest.

LMA, MS MJ/SP/XX/071; Loades, “The Sanctuary,” In Westminster Abbey Reformed: 1540–1640, 75–93. Top image Anton Wyngaerde.

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