Government incompetence and the new sanctuary towns of the 1540s

In July 1540, a statute (32 Hen VIII c 12) shut down chartered sanctuaries in monasteries and mandated a new secular sanctuary system. There was only one problem with the new system: it didn’t work. It’s very hard to believe in 2020 that governments could put into place policies that just don’t work: our governments today are always so entirely competent!

The Sanctuaries Act did not abolish sanctuary (as sometimes it is said to have done). It provided for continuance of 40-day sanctuary in parish churches, for instance; seekers were, as usual, to confess to the coroner and then to proceed to a permanent sanctuary. Or, also as before, offenders could just show up at the sanctuary to be registered. It was the location and nature of the permanent sanctuaries that changed: they were in eight “sanctuary towns” scattered throughout the realm: at Wells, Westminster, Manchester, Northampton, Norwich, York, Derby, and Launceston.


The offences for which sanctuary could be sought were also curtailed: the most serious offences (intentional murder, ravishment of women, burglary or robbery that put those affected in fear of their lives, arson, and robbery of churches) were no longer eligible for sanctuary. Though this was a significant restriction, relatively few sanctuary seekers had actually sought refuge for those offences. Even most seeking sanctuary for homicide claimed that the killing hadn’t been intentional but was the result of a sudden quarrel, so they would still have been eligible.

One issue left unresolved in the statute is how the type of homicide was determined: the felon’s own confession? or some kind of adjudication in court – which normally didn’t happen for those who took sanctuary and for which no provision was made? If it was the seeker’s own confession, we do have one slice of evidence of how sanctuary seekers represented their crimes: for 72 Durham sanctuary seekers who confessed homicide between the 1460s and the 1520s, not a single one confessed to an intentional premeditated killing. And that was before it mattered for eligibility for sanctuary privilege. In general, we don’t have much evidence for how the new system actually worked – because there are so few records of people using it. So the determination of type of homicide is probably a moot point: but I do wonder what they had in mind. Or didn’t have in mind. Drafting legislation is hard.

So the fact that this new system of sanctuary towns UTTERLY FAILED is probably not because of the restriction of offences for which sanctuary could be sought. There’s another explanation: complete incompetence in the design of the new system.

Clearly an attempt was made to create a workable system: the statute itself indicated details about its function – for instance, there was a limit of twenty seekers for each sanctuary and contingency plans (escort of supernumerary seekers to another sanctuary) when the limit was reached. Committees were formed to plan the location of the sanctuary in each city. Here is a map of the city of York drawn up with the sanctuary zone outlined in red. It’s a complicated zig-zag pattern, notably including two parish churches (St Helen’s & St Sampson’s). (TNA MPB 1/490)


And here’s the plan for Norwich, this time the zone outlined in blue. The Norwich sanctuary zone was to be a simpler block of tenements and again including a parish church. This must have been a beautiful map before it was damaged/faded. (TNA, MPI, 1/221)


A big problem with the plan was that it was foisted on the designated towns and some at least were very unhappy about it. Manchester vociferously protested that the sanctuary men would be injurious to its cloth industry (they’d lead the workers astray with their idleness).


So Chester was then substituted for Manchester, but Chester immediately protested and replaced by Stafford. The new statute, in fact, placed sanctuaries in precisely the milieu where they were most likely to be resented, larger towns and cities. Urban governments had been on the front lines of those objecting to sanctuaries from the 15th century, because as independent jurisdictions the ecclesiastical institutions with sanctuaries posed a major challenge to urban corporate governments’ own jurisdictional claims. So asking those urban governments to administer and implement these new sanctuaries was like demanding that a temperance organization run a new state system of taverns. It was bound to fail – and it did.

There’s very little evidence for people seeking refuge in these sanctuary towns: there are about six seekers in the 1540s using this new system that I and others who’ve looked for them have turned up in the records (to find them look on the timeline from 1541 onwards). No doubt there were more than six (and I live in hope that some kind of civic record from one of these towns will turn up something like a register of seekers), but the evidence suggests that felons did not find this new system workable.

One question is whether this was designed to fail: was the placement of the new sanctuaries in the charge of hostile city governments intentional sabotage? Or was this unthinking ignorance – the MPs (mostly rurally-centred gentlemen) simply unaware of urban politics? My vote is for incompetence and ignorance rather than a Machiavellian plan. To me it seems improbable that the statute’s elaborate (if insufficient) provisions were designed to fail. If king and parliament had wanted to abolish sanctuary, surely they would just have done so. Planned failure or not, however, the new system was a dud.

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