Flight of an apprentice

In 1538 London apprentice Michael Crowche ran to Westminster sanctuary for fear of his master’s “crueltie of imprisonment.” As he put it, he “did flee and took the sanctuary of Westminster …for the safeguard of his body, until such time as that [he] might avoid the cruelty and extremity of the wilfulness & malice of his foresaid master.” Crowche’s master Nicholas Gybson had more than the usual employer’s authority, as he was also sheriff of London.

Crowche was one of the kinds of sanctuary seeker that usually fall between the evidentiary cracks: he wasn’t a felon, so he doesn’t show up in the records of criminal prosecution or pardon. Technically he was probably a debtor, though he portrays himself simply as fleeing for safety.


We hear about him because Crowche submitted a petition to the Court of Requests telling his story. (Requests was orginally called “the Court of Poor Men’s Causes” and offered a more accessible recourse to justice.) After he fled to Westminster, he says, Gybson came to the sanctuary to negotiate with him to settle what Crowche owed him (a clue that Crowche was not simply fleeing cruelty).

Somehow, Crowche had become indebted to Gybson by £41. Perhaps this had something to do with his apprenticeship: masters paid fees to their guilds to enrol their apprentices, and if Crowche had left his service Gybson may have wanted reimbursement. Gybson was a grocer, one of the wealthiest merchant occupations. Crowche himself indicates that he’d sold several pieces of jewellery and a horse – equivalent to someone today saying that they were so poor that they’d had to sell their Tesla and their Rolex. So Crowche was at least aspirationally well off (thus perhaps the debt).

Crowche and Gybson entered into arbitration, mediated by none other than William Webbe, keeper of the sanctuary: earlier, Webbe was embroiled in a scandal about a wench. He pocketed 40 shillings as a fee for the mediation. In his petition to the court of Requests, Crowche said he’d agreed to the settlement simply to get out of the sanctuary, which was, he said, “the place of misery.” Now he wanted the agreement renegotiated. As usual, we don’t know the outcome of this case.


Perhaps Michael Crowche learned a thing or two about squeezing money from Gybson: a man of the same name evidently greedily pursued a spurious* debt case against John Stow (famous as historian and urban geographer) in the 1570s. (*spurious, that is, according to John Stow.) Stow reported a conversation with Crowche’s maidservant, who told Stow her master was “intoxicate” with his lust for riches; he’d married a wealthy woman, but “he had done better to marry a poor wench.”

Top image Pieter Bruegel.

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