The “degree of St Edith”: sanctuary at a nunnery

A curious aspect of sanctuary in 15th-16th century England is that though many different kinds of churches offered shelter, I’ve found only one case where a nunnery provided shelter to a fleeing felon. In 1529, Geoffrey Jenyns, a yeoman of Brentwood, Essex, was hauled into court in 1529 or 1530 to answer to a charge of burglary. He pleaded sanctuary, saying that he had gone to Wilton Abbey and there taken “the degre of Seynt Edythe.”


St Edith was daughter of 10th-century king Edgar the Peaceful and Wilton’s most famous nun. I haven’t found any other references to the “degree of St Edith,” but the formulation intriguingly suggests a more developed custom than surviving records indicate.

Jenyns didn’t claim permanent sanctuary there, but rather called for a coroner; he confessed his felony, abjured, and in the custody of county officials started for a port to go into exile. Though apparently following procedure, he was nonetheless arrested and brought to trial.

He asked the justices to put him back on the road to exile as he’d been illegally arrested. The result is unclear, but he evidently wasn’t hanged and may have been left in prison. The next time we see him is in 1537, when he presented a pardon for the 1529 burglary and walked free. Pardons were sometimes granted for difficult or uncertain cases: so possibly he got the pardon at least partly so as not to have to solve the ambiguity of whether he could abjure from Wilton Abbey.

But that wasn’t the end of the story of Geoffrey Jenyns: he was back in court two years later on theft charges. This time he pleaded benefit of clergy but was caught on a technicality: an arcane rule disallowed men who’d married more than once.

Though married laymen could claim benefit of clergy, they couldn’t have married twice, based on the idea that benefit of clergy was available for any man eligible for priesthood. A man who’d married once but whose wife had died could be ordained; but a man who’d married twice could not. Though Jenyns denied that he’d married more than once – and considerable time was spent digging up evidence from ecclesiastical courts about those marriages – ultimately Jenyns was declared a twice-married man so could not have his clergy. He was sentenced to hang.

Jenyns thus was caught up in a couple of arcane legal situations that generated a lot of records. Like many men in the 15th and 16th centuries, he tried any and all the mitigations he could – sanctuary, pardon, benefit of clergy – but ended up with a noose around his neck anyway.

TNA, KB 9/1065, m. 129-31; TNA, KB 9/541, m. 73; KB 27/1073, m. 15; KB 27/1104, rex m. 8; KB 27/1111, rex m. 12; TNA, KB 29/169, m. 28d, 33d; KB 29/171, mm. 28d, 37d; KB 29/172, mm. 3d, 9. Top image (St Edith) source.

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