“For succour of his life”: John Amadas and Tavistock Abbey

Even in the sixteenth century, monasteries could still figure as places of safety from enemies intent on harm; this case didn’t involve sanctuary in the technical English legal sense, though with the same rhetoric of holy asylum and protection of life.

In 1529, John Amadas, a prominent gentleman of Tavistock, Devon, who’d sat as MP in 1515 and would go on after this to serve in many other public offices, was engaged in a violent conflict with John Fitz, another Devon gentleman. In one episode of their ongoing quarrel (as he said later in court), Amadas was in Tavistock acting peacefully, indeed walking on his way to mass, when Fitz’s men attacked him, intending to kill him. He fled, taking refuge in Tavistock Abbey.

Tavistock Abbey. Source

Even there he wasn’t safe, as Fitz and his men were so wicked (Amadas said) they invaded the abbey itself; Amadas, seeking the holiest spot, hid by the high altar of the abbey church “for succor of his life,” but still Fitz and his men “fiercely” followed him with violence on their minds. Luckily for Amadas, some of the monks were in the church when he ran in and perceiving that Fitz and his men were acting “without dread of God” they barred the door to the church and thus saved Amadas’s life.

Though Roger Virgoe, Amadas’s History of Parliament biographer, refers to this episode as Amadas having taken sanctuary, according to Amadas’s own version of the story (which is the only one we have) this was not a technical sanctuary-seeking in the English common-law sense. Amadas did not (apparently) register for sanctuary by confessing felony or debt, but sought a place of protection while in immediate danger. But he employed the same phraseology official sanctuary-seekers did, emphasizing the protection of his life the holy place afforded him.

Amadas went on to serve as royal serjeant-at arms, Justice of the Peace, and in many other offices. Ironically given his 1529 rhetoric of churches as holy places of safety, he likely was the Cromwell lackey who violently seized George Brewce in a notorious 1539 sanctuary breach.

TNA, STAC 2/1, fol. 148; Roger Virgoe, “Amadas, John.” Top image British Library.

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