Off on a technicality

Something a bit funny happened with this case. A man committed murder but got off on a completely fictitious technicality. (He also took sanctuary, though that’s probably incidental to the fixing of his case.) In March 1541, Robert Whitfield, yeoman of Southwark, assaulted and killed another yeoman, Nicholas Grene of London. Afterwards, Whitfield fled to sanctuary at Westminster.

By 1541, a new sanctuary system was in place, but few were using it according to surviving records. Westminster was the only hold-over from the previous chartered sanctuaries; not surprisingly, it was probably the most functional of the new sanctuaries.

Whitfield may have stayed at Westminster for about 18 months; the next time we see him is in the fall of 1542, when he came before King’s Bench. When they could, seekers used their time in sanctuary to figure out a way out of their felony charges. The most common solution was organizing a pardon. Others came out of sanctuary to stand trial when they were confident of acquittal (perhaps because evidence of innocence had emerged or the jury had been sufficiently bribed or intimidated). Occasionally the accused was able to point to a technical problem with the indictment, and this is the path that Whitfield took. He argued that the indictment had been improperly drafted.

By the 1413 Statute of Additions, the accused had to be identified by name, occupation, and town; Whitfield claimed that the indictment had omitted those necessary bits of information and thus the charges must be dismissed. The justices concurred and he walked free. What makes his case strange is that his indictment is copied into the record just before this discussion of its defects: and it DOES identify him fully by name, occupation, and town.

So this was not only a trumped-up “technicality” but the court was so contemptuous that it didn’t even bother to doctor the records. There really was something rotten in the state of England in the late years of Henry VIII’s reign.

TNA, KB 9/550, mm16-18; KB 27/1125, rex m7. Top image source.

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