Just in time

Today a quite ordinary sanctuary seeker, whose case is interesting because he’s one of the last to use the old system before it changed mid-1540: he snuck under the wire. The story of John Porter, a labourer of Fewston, Yorkshire, had begun much earlier, in 1528. In that year Porter had been at Lancaster (some 70 miles from Fewston) when he got into a quarrel with fellow labourer John Huton and killed him.

Porter presumably fled the scene and for 12 years he’d had no trouble for this crime. By 1540 he was in Fewston, which is perhaps where he was from in the first place. But something happened in that year to cause him to take sanctuary in the Fewston parish church. He called for the coroner, looking to abjure for the 1528 homicide. From the early 1530s, abjurers no longer went into exile, but were directed instead to a chartered sanctuary in the realm. They were also branded, to prevent them from doing it more than once. Porter was duly branded and assigned the sanctuary at Ripon, conveniently located about 15 miles from Fewston. Ripon was a late-flowering sanctuary: there’s very little evidence for its use until the 1530s, but coroners assigned it to abjurers as a destination fairly often that decade.


It’s hard to know what happened to Porter, as the paper trail runs cold. Several months after he would have arrived at Ripon (always assuming he actually did make it there), chartered sanctuaries in religious institutions were abolished by statute. In most cases this simply confirmed the obvious as the monasteries themselves had been dissolved, but Ripon wasn’t closed; as a college of secular canons it wasn’t among the houses closed in this phase of the dissolution, though it was shut down in 1547.

At a guess, the sanctuary seekers at Ripon were simply permitted to remain there, so we can imagine Porter staying there for a few years, still escaping punishment for a killing more than a decade before.

TNA, KB 9/1003, m. 51

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