The London civic government and especially its sheriffs were hostile and aggressive towords felons who avoided arrest by running to sanctuary. So it was pretty embarrassing in 1528 when one of the sheriff’s staff had to flee to St Martin le Grand.
On 16 April 1528, sheriff’s servant Robert Panke was in the Rose tavern in the parish of St Nicholas Shambles when he spotted yeoman Richard Goldesburgh. Panke knew that Goldesburgh was wanted to respond to a debt suit in the sheriff’s court.
So Panke – no doubt thinking of the pats on the back that would come his way from his bosses – approached Goldesburgh to put him under arrest, acting “quietly and licitly, following the laws of England and the custom of the City.” Goldesburgh, however, refused to come quietly and assaulted Panke. According to the later official version (which seems really implausible) Panke did not, as one might expect, himself respond forcefully, but instead turned and tried to run away. At a certain point, though, Panke was backed into a corner and Goldesburgh wouldn’t stop, so (again, per official version) Panke was forced to stab Goldesburgh and killed him.
This cornering trope is the canonical version of the self-defence scenario: it was designed to produce a royal pardon. It’s really unlikely it actually transpired this way, as Panke was presumably prepared for some resistance, but the coroner’s inquest jurors wanted to make sure that the scenario on record in the indictment placed as much of the blame as possible on the victim, Goldesburgh. By around 1600 a killing in the course of an arrest would be a justified homicide, bringing acquittal at trial (as below). But in the 1520s such deaths were still homicides that required pardons.
Getting that pardon, though, required a potentially embarrassing and emasculating narrative: that Panke had turned tail and run as soon as the man he was trying to arrest became aggressive. Maybe it was less embarrassing because presumably everyone understood it as a legal fiction. And, perhaps, that was part of Panke’s punishment for bungling the arrest: yes, you’ll get off, but you’ll spend some time worrying about whether you’ll be hanged and you’ll have to put up with playing the role of a coward in the official narrative on record.
Another part really was embarrassing: after he killed Goldesburgh, Panke ran to sanctuary at nearby St Martin le Grand – sheltering from arrest by his own colleagues in an ecclesiastical precinct that his own employers, the City of London, denied had right of sanctuary. The situation was fixed very quickly – in about three weeks, Panke appeared in King’s Bench with a royal pardon in hand. Interestingly, the official version of the process on the King’s Bench roll omits Panke’s flight to sanctuary: let’s just omit the inconvenient part of this episode.
TNA, KB 9/506/1, mm 43-44; KB 27/1067, rex m 3. Top image P. Bruegel