Hugh Harvey and the sanctuary town of Knowle

Hugh Harvey worked as a servant at The Goat Inn on the Strand near London. One day in 1537 he robbed a guest, royal chaplain Dr Richard Croke, of a bag of money and then scampered off to sanctuary. Rather than running to nearby Westminster Abbey, though, Harvey made his way westward towards Warwickshire, which seems to have been familiar country for him. After several days of traveling from place to place within the county, he settled in the sanctuary town of Knowle.

Knowle was a Westminster Abbey manor; sharing the abbey’s jurisdictional immunities the town functioned as a sanctuary. Harvey didn’t immediately register as a sanctuary man, however, likely because he would have had to surrender the stolen money to do so.

Instead, he took lodgings and hunkered down. He apparently had an old friend in Knowle, a local chaplain, and the two of them spent a few nights in the local alehouse, drinking up a storm. Harvey unwisely flashed gold coins and boasted about his heavy purse.

If Harvey hoped that Warwickshire was far enough off the beaten path that he wouldn’t be found for his metropolitan felony, he was wrong. As luck would have it, Dr Croke’s brother Robert lived nearby and heard that his brother’s robber had gone to Knowle. So Robert Croke, in the company of some county officials, rushed over to Knowle to check the situation out. They found Harvey and tried to arrest him, but more or less at the same time as they said “We arrest thee,” he said, “I claim sanctuary.”

There followed a heated discussion between the men of Knowle and Dr Croke’s representatives over whether Harvey could have sanctuary. Several interesting things emerge from later reports of this discussion.

First – all those involved in this discussion were laymen: on the Knowle side, the town constable, the manor’s bailiff and steward, and a host of other townsmen were involved in the situation in various ways. Dr Croke’s brother brought in several Warwickshire yeomen and gentlemen. Though they debated Harvey’s eligibility for sanctuary, no one questioned that Knowle was sanctuary or that it was available for those who qualified for its privilege, interesting given that this is late 1537. We know this was near the end of sanctuary’s heyday; they didn’t.

Another interesting point is that as the men of Knowle argued with Dr Croke’s representatives about Harvey’s eligibility, they consulted books of statutes, reading them aloud for those who were illiterate, and arguing about what recent statutory changes to sanctuary meant.


This case then illustrates the extent to which law enforcement at the local level was conducted by non-professionals at a range of social levels; as far as I can tell, none had formal legal training but several had evidently taught themselves using printed guides and treatises. And it also indicates the extent to which this sanctuary was integrated into local law enforcement: for these men this sanctuary was simply part of the legal landscape, like serving on juries, not something separate or at odds with the king’s law, as sometimes historians have interpreted sanctuary.

The men representing Dr Croke and the men of Knowle could not agree on whether Harvey was eligible for sanctuary; Dr Croke’s representatives retreated pending bringing in higher-ranked officials from Warwick. Those higher-ranked officials never arrived, so the Knowle manorial officials registered Harvey in the sanctuary. He surrendered the stolen money, though the sanctuary administrators interestingly granting him a living allowance. He could roam at will within the town of Knowle.

He evidently didn’t plan to settle, however. He paid a local teenager to go to Banbury to fetch a horse and paid another local man to buy him some clothes. A couple of weeks later, he bid everyone farewell, got on his horse, and rode off into the sunset.

That wasn’t the end of the Harvey affair for the people of Knowle, however. His victim, royal chaplain Dr Richard Croke, had a direct line to Thomas Cromwell and complained that the people of Knowle had not only impeded Harvey’s arrest but had also profited from his ill-gotten gains. So to determine whether the people of Knowle had unjustly detained his chaplain’s goods, the king mandated an enquiry led by big guns. Royal justice (and legal author) Sir Anthony Fitzherbert and Warwickshire Justice of the Peace Reginald Digby were dispatched to Knowle to dig into the question.

The enquiry’s main focus was not on whether Harvey should have had sanctuary – by the time Fitzherbert and Digby arrived he was long gone and they didn’t seem much interested in trying to find him. Instead they wanted to know what had happened to the money he stole. So they examined those involved in Harvey’s sanctuary-taking regarding the whereabouts of the money Harvey surrendered when he claimed sanctuary. That gives another insight into the local management of this sanctuary town: how it benefited the local economy.

Harvey’s surrendered stolen goods belonged to Westminster Abbey through its jurisdictional privileges. The manor’s officers then were charged with delivering the money to the abbey, after they’d paid off the expenses incurred by Harvey’s sanctuary-taking. So the nub of Fitzherbert’s and Digby’s enquiry was on those expense reports: and we find that meals were provided for those participating in the discussions; travel expenses were reimbursed for those who had to ride here and there to fetch people or things. Payment was also given in particular to those of higher status (such as the steward of the manor, a local gentleman) for their “painstaking” (“pains taken”) in spending a day dealing with the issue – a nice little per diem of 3s 4d. All this came out of the forfeited money.

After all, one of the manorial officers reportedly said as he used some of the surrendered money to pay for breakfast for all the local men involved: why should “such poor men and others that took pains there … be put to cost” in performing the king’s business?


It’s not clear whether Dr Croke ever got any of his money back; Westminster Abbey had the right to the forfeiture and may or may not have magnanimously agreed to grant it back to him. (My guess is that they didn’t.) There’s no sign that Hugh Harvey was ever caught; there were claims that he had concealed some of the stolen money when he claimed sanctuary, so he could potentially still have had a very tidy sum as he rode away from Knowle.

TNA, SP 1/130, fols. 154r-189v (L&P, 13/1:228). I have a chapter that goes into detail on this case: McSheffrey, Seeking Sanctuary, 140-64.

Top image: source

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