Wells as a sanctuary town

Though eight towns were designated as sanctuary cities by the 1540 Sanctuaries Act, we only have evidence for seekers going to Westminster, Norwich, and Wells. The latter cathedral town in Somerset was the destination for a weaver from Milson, Shropshire named William Arthur, who ran into the cemetery of the church at Culmington, Shropshire in 1542. He confessed to the coroner that about a month before he’d stolen a horse from John Smyth near Cleobury Mortimer.

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Culmington church. Source

It’s notable – but maybe no more than coincidental – that in this small group of post-1540 sanctuary seekers, half of them were horse thieves. Stealing horses was the “grand theft auto” of the premodern period, of course, but horse thieves aren’t so conspicuous before this. The prominence of horse theft may just be a statistical anomaly (n=6=insignificant sample), but it’s notable that when grounds for sanctuary were further tightened under Edward VI, horse theft was added to the list of excepted felonies. Was it a particular mid-century problem?

William Arthur abjured before the coroner at Culmington parish church and chose the sanctuary city of Wells. Assuming that he ever got there, were the townsfolk of Wells ready to receive him? Probably, but not certainly, I’d say.

TNA, KB 9/554, m. 90; TNA, KB 29/176, m. 3d

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