Lucky man

In some 1539 cases, sanctuary seekers seized from church precincts on Thomas Cromwell’s orders had unhappy endings. Anthony Spencer was also unceremoniously grabbed from the Westminster sanctuary late that year, but the conclusion of his case was quite different.

In mid-October 1539, Spencer, a “yeoman of London,” robbed and murdered one John Morres in Surrey. A couple of weeks after the crime, Spencer arrived at Westminster and asked for sanctuary. He was duly registered by the sanctuary’s keeper, William Webbe.

Two weeks after his entry, however, William Webbe himself seized Spencer, on Cromwell’s orders. Spencer was handed over to royal officials to stand trial for the robbery and homicide. When he appeared at gaol delivery in Guildford in February 1540, he pleaded not guilty to the felony and furthermore entered a plea of sanctuary, arguing he had been illegally seized from Westminster.

The judges did not rule on his sanctuary plea but returned him to prison while they considered. He stayed there until 1544, over which time a number of developments occurred.

First: later in 1540, the old sanctuary system was disassembled by statute and new secular sanctuaries declared, including one at Westminster. The new system didn’t work very well, although it may have worked better at Westminster than anywhere.

Second: Cromwell himself fell from power. He had a rough patch in the winter when Spencer’s case was first heard, maybe accounting for the justices’ demurral. Then in the summer of 1540 Cromwell was arrested for treason and executed. Why Cromwell had specifically ordered Spencer to be seized – whether this was random impatience with felony prosecutions being interrupted by sanctuary or something more particular about Spencer or his crime – is unclear. But quite possibly Spencer’s case sat in limbo between 1540 and 1544 because the original force behind his seizure from sanctuary – Cromwell – was either busy trying to save his own skin (early 1540) or dead, meaning no one was quite sure what to do about Spencer.

Even with the new sanctuary statute, there was no reason why Spencer’s sanctuary plea wouldn’t be legally viable. And indeed, so it turned out, although it took until 1544 for Spencer to have the case brought to the justices at King’s Bench. In May 1544, Spencer appeared at King’s Bench and again made his sanctuary plea. On this occasion the king’s attorney responded that his sanctuary plea was true: that Spencer had, in fact, been improperly extracted from sanctuary on Cromwell’s orders and should be restored.


The justices concurred. Spencer was duly and ceremoniously conveyed back into the custody of William Webbe, who was still the keeper of the Westminster sanctuary. About ten weeks later Spencer was pardoned and walked free.

Spencer’s case indicates:

  1. Sanctuary was still recognized by King’s Bench in the mid-1540s, though it shows up only rarely in the records by then;
  2. the Westminster sanctuary was still functional enough to have a keeper (the same one who’d held the position in the 1530s).

So Spencer was a lucky man; unlike the others who were seized from sanctuary on Cromwell’s orders in 1539, he survived, likely because of the timing.

TNA, KB 9/550, mm. 39-40; KB 29/174, mm. 31, 39; KB 27/1131, rex m. 6; C 66/741, m. 27; L&P, 19/1:636. Top image Metropolitan Museum.

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