Two burglars manipulated sanctuary in the early 1530s and the result was something of a surprise: the justices at King’s Bench affirmed the right of felons to take sanctuary – even when they were trying to cheat the system.
In May 1530, Maurice Bull & Nicholas Roo, both yeomen of Westminster, appeared before the court of King’s Bench to face charges of burglary. The indictment alleged that their crime was worse than usual, as they were sanctuary men at Westminster. From the safe base of the sanctuary, the indictment said, they had emerged at night to steal jewellery, a plate, and money worth more than £3 from a Westminster house, then snuck back into the sanctuary precinct.
As this was held to violate their sanctuary status they were arrested. In court Bull and Roo still claimed sanctuary; they admitted they’d been in sanctuary before the burglary but for for debt and trespass, not felony. After the burglary they re-registered – this time as felons. So technically, they said, they hadn’t breached the terms of their sanctuary status, and they should be restored to sanctuary.
The justices didn’t quite know what to do with them, so stuck them in prison, where they stayed for more than two years.
[Sidebar – interestingly, in prison the two men served as jurors on coroner’s inquests. Whenever a prisoner died an inquest was held, regardless of cause of death (these were natural deaths). Even prisoners could serve the king and participate in the justice system.]
Finally their cases came up in 1532, when two juries affirmed their double sanctuary registration (when the first jury made this finding, the justices threw it out and empanelled a second jury, which then duly made the same finding). The jurors consulted the sanctuary register itself and found that indeed both had registered twice and that the registration for felony had taken place after the burglary.
The justices thus gave their judgment (reluctant though it must have been) that the sanctuary plea made by Bull and Roo was good and that they were to be restored to Westminster Abbey, from which they had been illicitly seized.
Bull and Roo (as Rowere) were both listed in the census of the Westminster sanctuary taken on 1 June 1533. Nothing further is known about Nicholas Roo; Maurice Bull was still a resident of the sanctuary as late as September 1537 when he was a witness in an enquiry ordered by Cromwell.
Their case was one of several legal “wins” for sanctuary in the early 1530s: statutes affirmed sanctuary and this decision clarified that the privilege was strong enough even for manipulators like Bull and Roo, as long as they observed the formal rules.
We know in hindsight that sanctuary was effectively going to collapse within the next decade. But people living then did not know that – and over the next several years this decision greatly constrained attempts to arrest felons in sanctuary. In another case in 1533-34, I think it led to the use of a parliamentary attainder rather than a criminal trial to bypass the problems with the arrest of two murderers who, probably in imitation of Bull and Roo, had re-entered Westminster sanctuary following a notorious killing.
TNA, KB 27/1075, rex m. 4; KB 29/162, mm. 3, 5d, 6d; SP 1/238, fols. 72-73 [photo above]; SP 1/124, fol. 204r; SP 1/125, fols. 40r-41r; KB 9/975, mm. 134 [photo above], 235-3