The “privileged men” of Westminster: the 1532 and 1533 censuses

A spotlight on two fascinating but somewhat perplexing sanctuary documents: lists of the “names of all the privileged men” in the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, one (incomplete) drawn up in 1532 and another in 1533.

Between the two lists, 119 people were named, 116 men & 3 women. The complete 1533 list (which has 89 men & 3 women) is especially interesting as for most (78 of 92) it lists how long the seekers had been in the sanctuary and, in some cases, their reason for entry. The misdeeds for which the sanctuary residents had sought entry were divided up along a roughly 40-40-20 split: 40% entered for homicide, 40% for a property-related crime (theft etc), and 20% for debt.

The length of time they’d been in sanctuary varied considerably – from John Gon, who’d entered “for murder, 20 years and more past,” to several men who’d sought asylum the previous day. The average was 23 months, but the median was much shorter: 6 months.


Perhaps most significantly, 20 people – nearly a quarter – had sought sanctuary over the previous week. It’s hard to know what to make of this last number. If that week had been typical, then about a thousand seekers a year passed through the Westminster sanctuary.


Evidently, however, most soon left again, leaving less than a hundred resident at any one time (or at least on 1 June 1533). While many cycled in and then out again, there was a core of long-term sanctuary men: twenty-two had lived there for three years and more.

Why did many stay only days? The most likely reason is that they simply couldn’t find the wherewithal to support themselves in the sanctuary precinct and were forced to leave. Rents inside the precinct were high and paid work scarce. Unless a sanctuary seeker had financial support from relatives or patrons outside, it wouldn’t usually be possible for them to stay for long. As I’ve emphasized frequently in these posts, the chartered sanctuaries worked best for the rich.

Mind you, some were specifically marked out as poor, for instance the 1532 entry for John ap Howell, who took sanctuary for felony: “a poor man, for stealing of hens.” Most marked out as poor in 1532 were not on the list in 1533, but a couple had managed to find the means to stay.


One last question: is the 1533 census actually typical over the long term, or had it recently undergone a major change? The latter is very possible: the 1531 statute mandating abjurers to proceed to chartered sanctuaries rather than exile probably had a significant effect. These numbers suggest that

  1. this new policy was something of a disaster in its implementation: at least Westminster simply couldn’t handle the increase in seekers (and Westminster was almost certainly the largest sanctuary in the realm).
  2. altogether, the significant size of the population of seekers in the Westminster precinct and that extrapolation to possibly a thousand or so passing through annually may indicate that the “dark number” for sanctuary seekers is very high.

I know that the number of sanctuary seekers I’ve been able to find is the tip of an iceberg, because most relevant records don’t survive. Was that submerged part of the iceberg even bigger than I think? And are the seekers who stick out of the water (so to speak) similar to those in the iceberg as a whole? Or do the surviving records skew in some way?

TNA, SP 1/238, fols. 72-73; SP 1/70, fol. 133. 14/14

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