Corruption and extortion in the Westminster sanctuary

Around 1550 an elderly landowner named Alexander Frognall launched a legal complaint about a situation concerning his son, Thomas, who had taken sanctuary around 1531. Frognall Sr’s narrative has two villains – Thomas Cromwell & the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt – who (allegedly) corruptly extorted land from his vulnerable son.

In Alexander Frognall’s petition to the Lord Chancellor in Edward VI’s reign, he explained that around 1531 his son Thomas had been forced to seek sanctuary at Westminster Abbey because he’d allowed the escape of two prisoner. Thomas Frognall found the expense of staying in sanctuary overwhelming. Sir Thomas Wyatt heard about Frognall’s problems and came to visit him. I’ve got a proposition, he said. You will one day inherit Frognall Manor; sign over your inheritance to me now and I’ll help you out.

Even though legally this wasn’t a thing – Frognall Manor was in father Alexander Frognall’s hands (and note that Alexander was still alive twenty years later) – Thomas was desperate. According to Alexander Frognall’s later petition, both Wyatt and his crony Thomas Cromwell “greatly menaced” Thomas Frognall. They threatened to have him hanged and told him that “no sanctuary would hold him” against what Alex called “their extortionate power and might.”

Thomas Frognall was in a tough spot: he had been reduced to “miserable estate” by his stay in sanctuary, so that “he consumed and spent up all that ever he had or could make in this world.” He couldn’t leave sanctuary without a pardon as he would be convicted of felony (in a process controlled by Cromwell) and then hanged; he couldn’t get a pardon as Cromwell controlled the access to the king. The picture Alexander Frognall paints is of a corrupt reign of terror in which all processes were controlled by Cromwell and his cronies; if you didn’t surrender and do what they asked, you were lost. And so, Alexander Frognall says, his son Thomas gave in, and although Frognall Manor was not his to sign over to Wyatt, it nonetheless came into Wyatt’s possession. Thomas did come out of sanctuary (I’m not sure how – I can’t find a pardon) and was living in Westminster by the 1540s.

The point of Alexander’s petition, of course, was to get the manor back. One interesting thing is that representing Cromwell and Wyatt (both dead by then) as extortionate thugs was considered a useful legal strategy in 1550, useful evidence for Cromwell’s and Wyatt’s postmortem reputations.

Were Cromwell and Wyatt really that villainous? Obviously Frognall’s complaint is a highly biased and likely exaggerated narrative; but on the other hand I do see lots of evidence for Cromwell’s manipulation in the records of criminal processes. I’m on team #corruptCromwell rather than #principledCromwell. I have no particular opinion on Wyatt, but Susan Brigden seems to think the story is plausible enough.

TNA, C 1/1218/49; L&P, 8:160, 361; Brigden, Thomas Wyatt, 213-14. Top image Holbein, sketch of Thomas Wyatt, Royal Collections Trust.

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